Against literary evangelicals

During a recent train journey from Sydney’s Town Hall to Kings Cross, I saw two people reading, and both were reading 1984. This was not a coincidence. A week after Trump’s inauguration the novel, published in 1949, was Amazon’s bestselling book; at the time of writing it ranks sixth. People are using Orwell’s cautionary dystopia to make sense of the present. Books often fill this role: a private position from which to contemplate otherwise baffling experiences, maps with which to navigate the overwhelming, both public and personal. CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking are often recommended to the grieving. Books prompting the reader to confront their own mortality have, in recent years, become increasingly popular (among them, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi). Many readers share the desire for literature to be instructional or therapeutic.

If books serve this purpose, it is easier to argue for their continued relevance. However, reading books as tools or cures risks devaluing literary pleasure, taking enchantment and diminishing it with a utilitarian vocabulary. Certainly literature can bolster our emotional and intellectual equipment, but too much advice about how best to read describes literature as if it had a reducible, quantifiable outcome, as if a book were consumed by its reader and alchemically transmuted into intellect or aptitude.

Last month, Alain de Botton ominously pronounced on Twitter that ‘Some 130 million books have been published in history; a big reader will get through 6,000 in a lifetime. Choose carefully …’ A couple of weeks back, in the Harvard Business Review, Neil Pasricha (who holds the dubious honour of having delivered a TED Talk ‘ranked one of the most inspiring of all time’) wrote a list of ‘8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books this Year’, having improved his own reading rate from around 5 books per year to fifty, which has caused him to ‘feel more interesting’, ‘feel like a better father’, and write more (and actually contains some decent advice, too).

These are relatively sound, harmless, and digestible chunks of wisdom. But the impulse to speak of reading as a numbers game is suggestive. What happens, in de Botton’s picture, if you don’t choose carefully? What does choosing carefully look like? Why is so much thinking and writing dedicated to answering the question: ‘How should I read?’

It seems, for many of us, reading is a problem in a way that, say, cinema, music and television are not. It requires attention and time; scarce resources in an age of information consumption characterised by low-stakes sampling. The confusion around what good reading looks like may also have something to do with the solitude of the practice, and its dependence on the inscrutable realm of one person’s imagination. The silent reader is an enigma. In the same way you might be anxious about what someone really thinks of you, you cannot determine the nature of drama or frustration or gratification that this person is experiencing. Even if you’ve read the book, what precisely you have shared with your fellow reader remains elusive. It it is impossible to clearly articulate all of what we gain from literature.

We might like a book for its beauty or morality, or because it transforms our sense of self, or invites us to imagine an other we had not previously considered. But the experience is never reducible to one, or even a handful, of these effects. ‘If you press me to tell you why I loved him,’ Montaigne wrote about his famously intense friendship with La Boétie, ‘I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.’ The love of a book is similarly indescribable. This is why social media fetishises books as objects. It is easier to express (and inhabit) a reading aesthetic, than it is to describe reading.

Reading is multifarious – if we were to develop a list of features common to every literary experience it would be very short – yet people want to make rules about books. We are driven to evaluate them, and through them ourselves. Writing a literature PhD, I plainly think books deserve attention. But I have seen and experienced the discomfort associated with failing to understand or finish a text, and the impulse to measure and rank and explain. Teaching literature often means diagnosing and circumnavigating these insecurities. De Botton’s edict to ‘choose carefully’ pokes at the fear of being a person who has not read enough or failed to read what they should have.

Advocates of reading (myself included) often feel compelled to evangelise that books will improve your character, change your life, make you a better person. That we turn to books in times of great emotional need, during political crises, and to find a way through mourning speaks to their power. But, as with friendships, they do not need to be life-changing to be valuable. Nor does a book need to equip us for the future. We are not compelled to ask whether live music or conversation will improve us. There is obvious value in the thing itself.

Of course there are better and worse books, and the claim that life is enhanced by reading widely is, in the modern liberal democratic tradition, uncontroversial. This is supported by the fact that, if Ricky Gervais is to be believed, he has only ever read one: Catcher in the Rye. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump also doesn’t read books. It is likely not a fluke that both these men assumed that being able to do one thing extremely well (playing an unfunny and insufferable middle-manager; playing a cartoon rich person) qualified them for other pursuits (being an unfunny and insufferable atheist and awards show host; being President). Literature does contribute to our sense of where we might stop being useful.

Of course we should all read more. If it’s not obvious to you that books can be nourishing and enlightening, I suggest that you vacuum them up until the revelation hits. There’s no shortage of outlets promoting the virtues of reading, but if you’re spending time with articles proffering guidance on how best to read, it’s unlikely that your failure to optimise your bookcase placement or Kindle font is the reason you’re not hitting your target.

Barring misfortune and excessive sloth, I will soon complete my PhD. However, as you may have realised, this has not granted me any grand insight into how best to read. All I can do here is chase down my instinct that if we’re picking up books out of fear we are poorer for it. I am anxious, I suppose, about reducing literature to a self-improvement machine.

Sure, read 1984 to come to terms with the destabilising politics of deceit. Commit to finishing Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow in a month, or reread the entire Animorphs series including its numerous spin-offs. Read only books by Eastern European women for a year. Confine yourself to the self-published. Read nothing but Proust for a decade. Read twenty books at once. Skip every second page. Reading is not transactional. Books should not be commodities. Life is too short. And unless you are my student, I cannot make you read what I want you to read. Even then.


Image: Still from 1984.


This is part of a series responding to our recent Pitch Page query about reading strategies in an age of 130,000,000+ books, a topic that received an unusual amount of interest.

Read the first of the responses in the series, ‘Infinite book lists and other loathsome behaviours’.

Dan Dixon

Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney. He writes regularly for Overland’s online magazine, and has also been published in Meanjin, the Australian Book Review and The Lifted Brow.

More by Dan Dixon ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Good article, articulate input. Mr. Dixon puts reading in terms I’ve never thought of, and don’t really mind that I haven’t thought of them.

  2. We don’t often come across people who can express doubts about the rash of self-indulgent and prurient texts that are appearing for quite some time now. So much more subtle than the slap in the face books of the ’50s to ’70s, some of those further engorged with pictures and now banned. Books are now classified as texts, as is apparently a bus shelter on the side of a road. That is fine – most of us could write a short story about a bus shelter, and have probably been made to do so in some workshop or other. I think a problem lies in advice these days that beginner writers should write about what they know. What then seems to come to come gurgling up from the depths of the usually feminine psyche and often troubled workshop attendee is all the bad things that have happened in their lives. Nostalgic reminiscences about family come a close second, usually centred around a woman or those very dull knockabout but sensitive New Age guys who like to rough it in the outback, and usually based around a house in the country. It doesn’t even seem to matter if it is a work of fiction or a memoir. Memories and needs, and needy people. Embarrassing moments sitting in a classroom or workshop, listening to a sobbing rendition by the person sitting next to you, about something horrible that has happened – usually to someone they know, but funnily enough never about themselves. Well, I don’t want to hear or read this cathartic and often poorly constructed and plotless nonsense. I suffered greatly through ‘Tuesdays with Maurie’, a worthy best-seller about someone dishing out platitudes while they were dying. Maurie was apparently a lovely man, but his representation was all wrong, for me anyway. On the other hand, without seeking solace, I read the first couple of books by Sara Henderson – you know, the early days of the Bullo Station lady up in the Northern Territory. I was young, in hospital and enjoyed her style, which was entirely devoid of pretension in those early books. Although factual, her subject matter was interesting and without a trace of self-pity. Apart from that, I have dutifully studies many of the great novels both old and new through my studies, but now I enjoy nothing better than page after page of blissfully unaware of political correctness Jilly Cooper, having exhausted most of the doesn’t have a clue about the Rock ‘n Roll industry and is too old for that anyway Jackie Collins (I stopped reading her when she introduced Lucky the Mafiosa who was boring). The authors of these kinds of books are also often interesting. Look at Patricia Cornwall – the story goes that no movies could be made of her more interesting early books, because she would not give permission unless she played the part of Kay Scarpetta. I would have chosen Beverley D’Angelo for the part of Kay and Ashley Judd as her niece Lucy, but it is probably too late now. One of my favourite books to film is ‘The Firm’ – an exciting book and an absolutely thrilling and beautifully cast film. Because certain authors (and film makers) understand PLOT – something I find missing in most Australian literature. I have enjoyed so-called shallow literature for years, and people need to be honest about why and how people read. You can get through a book because you have to, and some of them have stayed with me because they are good, and worthy and all of that. I like recipe books, but I don’t take them to bed with me, and manipulative and catastrophic novels about horrible things that happen to other people’s children just make me feel sick. If you need to know about that kind of stuff, read ‘The Scourge of the Swastika’ or ‘Dead Men Do Tell Tales’ – they come with photos too. I read them both before the age of 12, and it cured me of prurience for life. Put all your angst into a Mills & Boon – they outrank the bestsellers every time and you can finish one on the train and probably write one too. If you don’t feel better after that, see a therapist.

  3. I once tried to read eighty books in a year to impress a girl. Thought I gained insight into my own reading habits & it forced me to pick-up books I have no doubt would still be sitting somewhere darkly gathering grit in a forgotten corner of my childhood home, I’d never do it again. Focusing on the sheer amount of how much I was reading meant I skimmed over the content of what I was reading, skipping entirely the precious long afternoons, or even days, between finishing one novel & starting the next, when the resonant shape of characters & their feeling float around you, intermixing with your own narrative, the border between you & the book thoroughly blurred. Needless to say I only made it to 74. Though I do wonder Dan, what would have been of Mr. Gervais if the only Salinger he’d read was “Raise High the Roof Beam”?

  4. Wow of an article and even more wow of a comment in response to the first comment. Where to start and where to end! I could write a hundred responses to this as the subject is so broad, so I won’t. Thank you…

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