“The source of anarchic individuality”: On the civic virtues of reading for its own sake

“Reading is a civic act.”

So writes Montreal poet laureate Bertrand Laverdure in his novel Readopolis (in an English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei). This seems like an accurate assessment, all the more so in these days when the culture of reading and what it stands for appears to be under assault on multiple fronts.

It is no secret that the sitting president of the United States is not a reader, opting instead to get his information from cable news broadcasts on television. He claims to prefer intelligence briefings be kept short – no longer than a single page of written material – and free of nuance or ambiguity. “I like bullets or I like as little as possible,” he has said.

While this attitude is undoubtedly alarming coming from the putative leader of the free world – whose every decision, action, and Twitter utterance carries consequences that might potentially be felt around the globe – it is nevertheless reflective of a pervasive and familiar mentality in our fragmented, digital-media-saturated postmodern world. According to one 2014 article, the average web reader spends no more than 15 seconds on any given piece of writing; a separate article, published a scant two years later, suggests the average is as little as eight seconds. The POTUS’s short attention span is not, it turns out, all that uncommon.

Back in the heyday of Web 1.0, tech utopians promised a global, print-based platform that would promote literacy and turn all users into content creators and readers of a wide variety of material (while also, naturally, rendering the analogue technology of printed books obsolete). The ubiquity of social media in the years following the rise of Web 2.0 has had precisely the opposite effect, promoting information silos, filter bubbles, and socio-political polarization. Books are still with us, though newspapers and magazines are taking it on the chin; the online environment that was supposed to rush in to fill this void has instead proved ideal for visually based memes and sarcastic gifs.

For those who do persist in what Nicholas Carr refers to as “deep reading,” the tendency is to be greeted with suspicion. It is all too easy to label such people elitist, or to assume that their only interest lies in flaunting intellectual superiority over their unread, unsophisticated fellow citizens. That this attitude has taken root at a time in which more written information is more readily available to more people than ever before in history must count as one of the 21st century’s abiding ironies. “Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything,” writes Tom Nichols in The Death of Expertise.

Notwithstanding all of this, books remain one of the most stubborn technologies ever invented; their death has been foretold on innumerable occasions since Gutenberg and yet today physical books are produced in greater quantities than at any other point in history. The benefits of reading have been well rehearsed: it increases a person’s capacity for empathy; it provides a vehicle for understanding others and for breaking down binary oppositions in favour of an acceptance of paradox and variation; it allows for greater appreciation of beauty and artistry.

It is salutary to conceive of the practice of reading as a noble activity, and indeed this is the way it’s frequently characterized. When people point out that the American president does not read, it is not just in a vein of legitimate worry as to what significant information he might be missing regarding national security or the economy; there is most often a thinly veiled element of moral disapproval, as though not reading is in itself a sign of some deep character flaw. (In the case of a global head of state, this argument is much easier to make.)

This is the bedrock for those who wish to argue that the primary purpose of reading – or, at least, of reading what is commonly referred to as literary fiction – is improvement rather than aesthetic appreciation. The avatar of this line of argument is John Gardner, who in 1980 wrote: “The effect of the best art is to humanize by offering descriptions of just behaviour, positive models. A moral fiction, then, should present useful examples, models of creative process. This sort of fiction communicates its moral meaning … offers a culture the positive rather than the negative exemplar.”

In other words, it’s good for you. This is the All-Branification of literature (also known, in this country at least, as “the Canada Reads effect”).

But what if the idea of reading as a civic act were divorced from this notion of moral probity? Would it still be possible to argue for the civic virtue of a reading practice? Can we still suppose that there is some public value to be had in promoting reading even if it is done from a perspective of aesthetic appreciation as its primary virtue? The entire premise of this blog involves an attempt to answer “yes” to that question.

“If remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” writes Saul Bellow. This notion of aesthetic bliss – art for art’s sake – has been denigrated in many quarters by commentators who insist that literature is first and foremost a tool of betterment, that we read to internalize some moral lesson or to promote some progressive cause or campaign. But Mikita Brottman has argued persuasively that any activity that needs to be sold so rigorously on the basis of its value as a mechanism of self-improvement should perhaps be reevaluated. “Don’t give into your prejudices,” Brottman implores, “don’t read books just because you feel you ‘ought to,’ because they’ll be ‘good for you’; do it because you just can’t help yourself.”

“Readers and critics are perfectly entitled to regard literary works in any way they want, of course,” writes Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb, “but to deliberately avoid initially engaging with them for their artistic value – the value with which their creators most resolutely attempted to invest them – seems hardly in keeping with the animating purpose of literature as a form of expression.” Green arguably places too much stock in the notion that literary artists consider the aesthetic aspects of their work before any social good or lofty thematic concern; books with obvious morals or sociological messages as their clear primary motivation appear regularly, many of them with scant noticeable attention paid to the niceties of the prose on a line-by-line basis.

Yet the value of reading – or at least, one particular kind of reading – is not dependent upon this type of educational attitude. The civic benefits accrue despite – not because of – reading’s core nature. The practice of reading is, after all, essentially antisocial: solitary, individualistic, and self-indulgent. Yet we may also choose to believe in its civic virtue notwithstanding this apparent disconnect. Reading cannot help but make us better citizens, no matter how vigorously some of us may choose to argue otherwise. “My books do not hold all the answers,” Laverdure writes. “For me, they’re the source of anarchic individuality, of intellectual musings on the world.”

“The source of anarchic individuality”: On the civic virtues of reading for its own sake

One thought on ““The source of anarchic individuality”: On the civic virtues of reading for its own sake

  • June 10, 2017 at 1:36 pm
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    fantastic and thanks! Mary Gordon published a terrific essay in The Atlantic several years back refuting Gardner’s views on moral fiction. I will find a link and post to your FB post.

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