Category Archives: onanism

against reading

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
          all this fiddle.
     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
          discovers in
     it after all, a place for the genuine.
          Hands that can grasp, eyes
          that can dilate, hair that can rise
               if it must, these things are important not because a

I picked up Mikita Brottman’s The Solitary Vice: Against Reading from the shelf of the St. Mark’s bookstore hoping that it was a different book than it turned out to be. After needlessly explaining the innuendo in her title, Brottman starts out with a promising premise: she’s tired of the piety that reading is good for you. I am too: I’d like somebody to explain exactly why reading is good for you. We’re prepared from youth (Fahrenheit 451, firmly entrenched in the high school canon) to defend against the enemies of literacy who’d like nothing more than to burn our books in the name of the future. These barbarians haven’t yet arrived. Like the battalion guarding the frontier in Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, it’s possible that we’re guarding nothing while life slips away. Somebody, in the name of contrariness if nothing else, should be making the argument against reading.

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
          they are
     useful. When they become so derivative as to become
     the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
          do not admire what
          we cannot understand: the bat
               holding on upside down or in quest of something to

Brottman’s not that contrarian; perhaps it’s foolish to seek such a champion in the written word. She’s not arguing against reading; instead, she’s arguing against reading novels. Her book is something of an inversion of Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, a book not about the impending demise of print books so much as about how the novel shapes character, an argument he moves into the territory of memoir in his more recent My Sky Blue Trades and Reading Life. The predictable arguments are brought into play: Socrates wasn’t sure about poets. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey shows up on cue to demonstrate how novels set up unrealistic expectations for the real world. The novel blinds people to the real world; the solitary act of reading makes the reader less social. Books read in school are boring; the classics are moldy and old and the worlds they depict often bear little resemblance to our own. Reading novels won’t make you a better person. Probably Hitler read books.

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
          wolf under
     a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
          that feels a flea, the base

     ball fan, the statistician—
          nor is it valid
               to discriminate against “business documents and

What best to do? Like Birkerts, Brottman trots out her reading history that it might serve as an exemplar for our redemption. “A man’s work,” remarked Camus, “is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Brottman finds one of those images in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which led her down the garden path of true-life tell-alls, eventually to find heaven in true crime tales. From these, Brottman reasons, we can learn more than from all the Gothic fiction every written. She might be right. We should read what we like: to the pure, all things are pure, and nuggets of truth can be found in the garbage of celebrities. “Life is worth while,” Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts writes before he gives up, “for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.”

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
          a distinction
     however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
          result is not poetry,
     nor till the poets among us can be
          “literalists of
          the imagination”— above
               insolence and triviality and can present

My problem with Brottman’s argument is that it’s not a particularly difficult one to make. Critics worry about a general vogue for memoirs rather than fiction; journalists worry about fiction sold as memoir. It’s no longer daring to claim that a film can be just as rich as the written word. The staid gray pages of The New York Times regularly review video games. Maybe the New Criterion‘s still fighting these battles – I haven’t checked lately – but my sense is that Brottman’s tilting at windmills.

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
          shall we have
     it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
     the raw material of poetry in
          all its rawness and
          that which is on the other hand
               genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Not much poetry is cited in Brottman’s twenty-page bibliography, but the omission of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (grotesquely interpolated with my text) surprises me. Moore’s cross-examination of her art says more in less space than The Solitary Vice; it’s not, perhaps, a fair fight, but this is, after all, the Internet. “Poetry” begs to be re-made: now more than ever, the value of reading needs to be interrogated. Brottman’s book doesn’t quite get there; we still have Moore.