In The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman compares reading to masturbation. She warns that reading can disconnect the reader from the world if individual pleasure becomes the sole goal of reading. Brottman suggests that that reading, when approached correctly, ought to be viewed as a form of self-discovery.
Brottman’s argument has haunted me for the past few years. As a literature professor, I worry about the state of reading in the United States. During the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Seuss and others transformed reading from a potentially difficult and enriching task into something fun and silly. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Barnes and Noble and Borders franchises set up shop across the country, offering well-lit spaces and coffee shops. Libraries followed suit, mimicking those stores with their own coffee shops and airy spaces. Amazon and E-readers came onto the scene, making it easier than ever to buy and read books. The culture of reading has never been so pleasurable! It makes wonder if these advances in publishing and the culture of reading have disconnected us from social responsibility and made reading less about self-discovery.
Over the past few years, Young Adult (YA) fiction has exploded in popularity. From Harry Potter and Twilight to John Green and Suzanne Collins, everyone seems to be reading books aimed at a youth audience. These books are highly entertaining and they can, at same time, raise interesting questions from the treatment of Muggles (non-magical people) and House Elves (who are slaves) in Harry Potter to the discussions of inequality and poverty in The Hunger Games. I am not sure, however, if the pleasure of reading adventure stories overwhelms the important topics they cover. When we urge children to read, are they seeing reading as mere entertainment or something more?
As popular culture and commerce changed what and how most Americans were reading, scholars of literature increasingly engaged themselves in fairly specialized and technical analyses of difficult texts. This trend probably has its origins in the modernists of the 1920s and the waves of experimentation that followed during most of the twentieth century. Literary texts came to be seen as difficult, if not inaccessible. Serious literature seemed to define itself against whatever was popular. A gap between what scholars wrote about and what ordinary readers read seemed to grow. As many have pointed out, literary scholars seemed to be so focused on academic and professional concerns that they had begun ignoring the fundamental questions with which humanists and ordinary readers regularly grapple. Reading became professionally oriented, rather than oriented toward self-discovery and social engagement. Our colleges and universities have followed suit, with an increasing emphasis on professional learning.
When the faculty in the Humanities Division began talking about how best to promote the humanities and foster a culture of humanistic inquiry at Drury, I immediately thought that we should try to create a reading group. I believed that a humanities reading group could navigate the perilous hazards of both literary hedonism and literary professionalism.
Professor Tim Robbins, French major Dylan Rinker and I became the planning committee for the Humanities Reading Group. We strove to select a menu of books that asks questions about fundamental questions about how to live and transport readers around the world and through time. These books feature lively and exciting prose as they explore the concept of revolution. Reading these books will not simply entertain or amuse but will help us clarify our values and better understand the world in which we live.
There is another benefit to participating in the reading group: making connections with the Drury community. Reading by yourself can be an alienating experience. Joining a reading group provides a forum to discuss ideas and build relationships. Historians teach us that the advent of print helped create the modern-nation state as readers began to envision themselves as part of an imagined community. Being a part of community of readers, whether at Drury or elsewhere, is a way to form common bonds and can enhance feelings of social responsibility. While reading can be a “solitary vice,” it can be so much more. I hope you consider joining the Humanities Reading Group at Drury this semester. Or, if you are not in Springfield, I encourage you to find a reading group in your hometown.
[*] The term “solitary vice” was a Victorian euphemism for masturbation.