The campus where I work can hardly be labeled a bastion of literary enthusiasm. But, every spring, for a brief, three-day period, it does its best to pretend otherwise. The annual University of North Dakota Writers Conference culls from the ranks of established and award-winning authors (including, recently, figures like Colson Whitehead, Roxane Gay, and Robert Pinsky) and then brings those authors to campus for three days of workshops, presentations and roundtable debates. The mood at these events is always festive: authors’ quips get tweeted; audience members’ questions get answered; and books get signed, bought and sold. And since the events are free and open to the public, the crowds tend to be of a heterogeneous sort, with humanities students and faculty, campus administrators, staff and the town’s local residents all in attendance.
At the conference last spring, following an evening reading by a well-known author, I found myself standing in the lobby area where said author was dashing off autographs for those who had lined up to purchase copies of his books. A campus administrator of the conspicuous and high-ranking variety was also loitering nearby, within earshot of both the author and myself. Only an hour before, this administrator had performed the honors of introducing the author in question; his speech had been congenially laden with descriptions of the author’s achievements and publications, all of which were suggestive of a certain level of familiarity. But as we stood there in the lobby, watching the patient legions of book purchasers (most of them students) inching towards their respective meetings with the author, this administrator turned to his female companion and asked if she was ready to go. “Don’t you want to buy a book?” she asked him, to which she received a dismissive reply: “Who actually has the time to read?”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard an academic professional or career educator publicly denounce the practice of reading. Indeed, I can recall similar instances from throughout my career as a graduate student, including the time that a colleague of mine (a creative writer pursuing an MFA in fiction) told me that, as a writer, he didn’t believe in reading: “I’m a writer, I make things,” he told me, “Whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.” In saying this, my colleague appeared to be drawing a sharp line between the twin skill sets of the literary arts curricula and, at the same time, reinforcing a puzzling division of labor. Such binaries lend credence to and support for so-called “producerist” ideologies, all-too-common today, that would have us value innovation over use and, thus, production over education.
One of the more recent and better-known contributions to the growing argument against reading appeared last fall courtesy of critic Amy Hungerford. Hungerford’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “On Not Reading,” hinges on the observation that “The activity of nonreading is something that scholars rarely discuss.” But these anecdotal experiences, I think, suggest otherwise, as does the ethos that encourages the various participants in our literary ecosystem—everyone from high-school and college students to professors, editors, and writers of all stripes—to privilege acts of literary production over anything that might resemble “consumption.” All that time spent reading, we are effectively being told, might be more productively spent writing essays about not reading so that other readers can not read them.
“I refuse to read books” is Hungerford’s opening statement in her Chronicle essay. She does not specify whether she’s talking about certain books (in Making Literature Now, the book from which the article is drawn, she establishes David Foster Wallace as the specific source and subject of her refusal) or all books. Either way, her argument winds up courting some politically awkward bedfellows: remember, for instance, back in the summer and fall of 2015 when a handful of Duke University freshmen made headlines over their “refusal” to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home? Brian Grasso, the Duke freshman who started the trend, stated that, in assigning Fun Home, Duke “did not seem to have people like me in mind … It was like Duke didn’t know we existed.” This is a charge to which most scholars would likely feel compelled to respond, and indeed they did, speaking out in favor of reading as a practice that usefully allows for experiences of difficulty and discomfiture. Lee McIntyre, also writing in The Chronicle, used the incident to warn against the perils of “certainty” and “confirmation bias” on college campuses, and to remind scholars everywhere that “denialism breeds in environments where people refuse to hear other points of view. But education is meant to challenge us.”
Hungerford, on the other hand, wants scholars to fight such compulsions; she wants, instead, for us to “refuse, in a reasoned and deliberate way, to read what the literary press and the literary marketplace put forward as worthy of attention.” She wants, in other words, to receive credibility as an expert reader without the bother of actually reading.
An argument in favor of reading ought to strike readers of this essay as scandalously uncontroversial, but my sense is that it actually doesn’t, or won’t. My sense is that we who proclaim our inclusion within the contemporary literary marketplace—we readers, writers, students, teachers, and dispensers of text—actually read less, and less well, than we might let on. My sense is that the only controversial parts of Hungerford’s arguments have to do with her naming of a set of habits that many of us are loath to acknowledge but nonetheless already very accustomed to. Therefore I want to argue in favor of reading—reading generously, widely, variedly and relentlessly.
The future of what I have already called the “literary ecosystem” actually depends upon our resistance to producerist ideologies that would have us value the words we make over the ones we digest. A colleague of mine recently remarked that he wished he could apply for a semester of leave just to catch up on reading, without the expectation of producing anything. He was acknowledging that our universities, like the larger culture that supports and depends upon them, do not have the structural wherewithal to recognize the work of reading as work. Hungerford claims that “universities are made to be a haven for study,” but in fact English departments continue to exist primarily because of composition curricula, which demand that students produce literature even before they begin to inspect or to understand it. Meanwhile, humanities scholars are increasingly being asked to act more like their counterparts in the STEM disciplines and to develop research agendas that result in real “products.”
The university might have been, at one time, a “haven” for study in the way that Hungerford describes, but this has long since ceased to be the case, a fact that makes her method of refusal look less like a program that “runs against all our intellectual values,” as she puts it, and more like an exercise in structural complicity. Consider, for instance, the book I was assigned to read as a first-year assistant professor, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. In it, Bain reports that his research evaluating college instructors has taught him that “The best teachers didn’t ask students to discuss readings; they provoked and guided them into discussing ideas, issues or problems that some article or chapter might help them approach.” The best teachers, in other words, disregard both the text and the act of reading altogether (prompting one to wonder why they bother assigning readings at all) in favor of promoting what may, in fact, be only tangentially related “ideas, issues and problems.” With such irreverence for reading being not just a norm but, indeed, a stated goal of higher education, is it any wonder that a majority of today’s college students, according to a recent Stanford report, can’t distinguish between so-called “fake news” and credible information?
Refusal has always been more enticing—and easier—than genuine involvement. That is what’s so frustrating about seeing scholars like Hungerford refuse: the battle for the legitimacy of reading is a battle for the legitimacy of writing and for all parts of the literary ecosystem. Being decidedly uphill in nature, that battle requires all the recruits it can muster. And one need not look further than the White House for an indication of the difficulties that lie ahead. A few weeks ago, a viral photo that originated in a tweet from MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes showed the rows of empty shelves in President Trump’s “library” at the Executive Office Building. Trump’s library, it seems, is bare but for the books he himself has “written.”
This wasn’t anything that reader-types didn’t already suspect about their new president. Trump has happily declared his own disinclinations towards reading, telling the Washington Post that he’s never been a big reader of books because he’s “always busy doing a lot.” But Trump’s comments appear to solidify the link between reading and inactivity that prevents people (like my aforementioned colleague) from being permitted the opportunity to do the work of reading and have it seen as that, as work. Trump’s comments reinforce the pressure to refuse inactivity in the name of activity. “I can’t read, I’m too busy” translates, from Trumpese, into the notion that reading simply isn’t worth the time. Compare this to Hungerford’s point that “One must decide, without reading a work, whether it is worth the time to read it or not,” and it appears that Hungerford and Trump have more in common than either would probably like to admit.
To be fair, time is inarguably of the essence when there is so very, very much to be read. In Making Literature Now, Hungerford contextualizes her refusal to read Wallace through a process that amounts, in effect, to reading around him: she opts out of the infamous (and ample) Infinite Jest, and in to D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It is a move that makes Hungerford’s brand of refusal appear much more reasonable, as does her observation that “The story of Wallace’s relationships with women has a long thread of what might be called abuse—physical and psychic—running through it.” But if such complaints undermine the “worth” of a book like Infinite Jest, wouldn’t they also undermine the “worth” of Max’s biography of its author? Why read the one, if the stakes of one’s refusal to read the other are so high?
This discrepancy brings to mind Brian Grasso’s reasons for refusing to read Bechdel’s Fun Home. Grasso writes in the Washington Post that “After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment.” Grasso doesn’t name the sources he consulted in his research (Breitbart, for instance, calls Bechdel’s book “lesbian porn”), so it is difficult to assess what kind of information might have prompted his refusal. But in both of these cases of “reading around”—Grasso’s and Hungerford’s—the decision to “not read,” if it is to be a reasoned and logical decision, actually requires quite a lot of reading.
Hungerford offers two explanations for her choice to “read around” rather than simply to read—and in her Chronicle article this choice extends beyond Wallace to any book that appears tied to “market imperatives”—but they conflict with one another. The first explanation Hungerford gives is overabundance (“The problem of abundance … is a professional problem in every corner of literary study”), while the second is its opposite, parsimoniousness (“If scholars of today’s literature follow the lead of the literary press … then our students’ students’ will inherit the sort of narrow archive that still structures modernist studies”). Such a contradiction makes it seem that, for Hungerford, there may not really be a good reason to not read, aside from the potential for (and charms of) good old-fashioned iconoclasm.
There are many reasons to argue for reading though, and they are multiplying daily. Given the pressures to produce that I have been describing—and given how often the work of reading has been mistaken for idleness and inactivity, both by those who should know better (like Hungerford) and by those who probably never will (like Trump) —reading, far from being a useless activity, is beginning to look like an act of resistance. The work of reading generally goes unrewarded: tenure committees don’t care about it; grants are not won by it; and riches do not wait in store for the patient and dedicated reader. But this is precisely its value. Reading is unique in being a form of production that resists monetization and the logic of structural incentives. It produces things like experience, knowledge, discomfort and communion.
Yes, reading takes time. But it also takes time away from activities that fall more neatly under the rubric of producerist ideology. This is an idea that became clear to me last year, as I watched that campus administrator walk away from the book signing that followed the evening reading at our writers conference. If that administrator had had the inclination or time to attend another conference event, he might have heard the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson explain that if one reads for thirty minutes a day, he or she may read fifty books in a year. Thirty minutes—that’s no great sacrifice. As such, it seems high time that we rededicate ourselves to the task of reading and to figuring out what, in fact, deserves to be read—not just so we can produce more literature, or more readers and writers, but so we can model and make arguments for the value of doing all of the above.
Image credit: Jeremy Brooks (Flickr/CC BY)
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