If reading intellectually challenging literature is an activity like no other, as writers readily note, and one that might even improve society, as writers say when they are trying to justify their existence, one may ask how to make people reconsider those propositions in an age of growing indifference to the written word. In the language of marketing, how can “serious” reading be positioned?
Some well-intentioned efforts have fallen short because they are simply inaccurate. To advocate reading as a theater or cinema of the mind, as parents and teachers have sometimes done, fails to take into account the cerebral pleasures of syntax and vocabulary, and the far less abstract pleasures of rhythm and the sounds of language, whether spoken or evoked in silent reading. Such a claim also unintentionally emphasizes what the written word cannot do, such as reproduce a gunfight or car chase in real time. To take a more specific example, the literacy organization “Reading is Fundamental” has performed many good works, but its insistence on capitalizing and heavily accenting the first syllable in “fundamental” goes awry. For adults struggling to overcome illiteracy—and/or the learning disabled—reading may be no fun at all. And to call reading “fundamental” is to damn it with faint praise. The same can be said for regular oil changes, or practicing free-throws.
I once found a far better case for reading in a massage parlor ad in the sports pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. To wit: “Take a one-hour vacation with us.” The diffused “us” of writers can make that claim as readily as the management of any self-styled “spa,” and their work can be enjoyed in public.
To continue the spa motif, it is no accident that we speak of being immersed in a book. The experience has a great deal in common with that other short-term water vacation, the flotation tank, where for a time one shuts out external stimuli. Uninterrupted thought is no less integral to the experience than bathing weightlessly in a heavy saltwater solution.
At its best, reading represents a more active form of flotation. Jacques Cousteau, a man who knew both water and words, once stated that the purpose of a vacation is not to refrain from activity, but rather to replace one’s usual activities with others. Even tourists on a seemingly idle tropical getaway find themselves doing something: building sandcastles, beachcombing, or “working” on a tan. Adventure travel and volunteering on vacations simply extend this idea. Professional athletes in team sports, moreover, frequently spend their off-season golfing.
Those who don’t have the time or money to travel, or are simply sedentary, still exert some effort beyond the minimum required to manage work and family. A computer programmer may knit, while a detective solves chess problems, or a farm equipment shipping clerk fills miniature houses and rooms with fantastical scenes; and everywhere, like a benign fifth column, are the crossword puzzle fanatics. Each activity involves exercising underutilized portions of body and mind to restore a wobbly psyche’s balance.
And so with reading. Even editors read in their free time when they’re not drinking or wondering why their own work goes unpublished. Likewise, news coverage during Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s confirmation process brought to light that his vacations often consisted of removing himself to a locale far from his native New Hampshire in order to read, or reread, the canon of a single author, such as Dickens.
This is not just a quirk of one public figure, or of the highly educated. A quick glance around a commuter train or bus shows a surprising range of choices among readers who do not seem particularly privileged or multiply degreed. Besides genre fiction, “as told to” celebrity memoirs, and the earnest textbooks of students, one can find Nobel laureates’ novels and other “serious” fiction, along with intellectual histories and travelogues of the Middle East or the deep sea.
There are no doubt times when motives other than personal interest guide a choice of public reading, and The Onion once skewered those motives in a story headlined “Man Reading Pynchon on Bus Takes Pains to Make Cover Visible.” Impressing others this way remains a limited strategy. The people who care most about impressions won’t be on a city bus if they can help it, and if they are, a fellow rider is unlikely to impress them. Some might hold aloft their copies of Atlas Shrugged like so many stickers in search of bumpers, but they are likely to be reading intently as well as making a statement. All of these readers, though, are clearly spending their time and money on something without a demonstrable professional or financial goal.
That sounds a lot like a vacation. No umbrella drinks or stamped passports are involved, but the motivations are the same.
Curiosity plays no small role. I know a man who once went to Sioux City, not one of the world’s leading destinations, precisely because he had never been there before. More than a decade later he still talks about the experience, from the Sergeant Floyd obelisk to the dog track of North Sioux and the meat packing plant converted to a shopping mall. The same impulse explains a non-specialist’s reading a history of Byzantine iconography or a survey of Australian wildlife. Both offer a break in daily life and an enlargement of our sense of wonder and possibility. That awareness can provide a sense of transcendence, and connection, or even the spark of divine discontent that leads people to change their lives.
Closely related is the impulse to expand experience hypothetically and ask ourselves how we might act under certain circumstances. Dude ranches thrive for precisely this reason, and in that spirit one might read adventure stories to “try on” a different set of experiences. As with many travels, we can pronounce it “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” And we can sleep a little better knowing that an ill-conceived climb up Mount Everest or the obsessive pursuit of a white whale, even if they were live options, might not really be for us after all.
A less dramatic but no less valid adventure is seeing how others live. Tourism in the Amish country of Pennsylvania or the slums of Rio de Janeiro is in no small part based on the appeal of the exotic, but superficial and remote observation, perhaps from a bus window, runs the risk of a voyeurism that is increasingly questionable even at zoos. Respectful engagement sometimes allows us go beyond the way we experience others to learn how others experience their own lives and those lives’ connection with the world at large. Given a chance to speak for himself, a taxi driver in Miami might discuss the problems posed by street prostitution and, according to him, the relative superiority of pornography. A Great Plains drifter in the Great Plains might offer his account of being kicked out of a YMCA dormitory, and on a particularly hot day a rug merchant in Istanbul might provide his perspective on global warming.
Even when such encounters are possible, though, they are fleeting. The written word can push the process further, and may even prove superior to “real life.” Undistracted by skin color, clothing, or our own jet lag, we can obtain a portrayal of consciousness that uses both the intimacy and the divisions of the confessional. Leapfrogging stages of familiarity in a way that seldom occurs outside of books, we might learn the inner struggles of a petty criminal in Spain or a Guatemalan Indian, or at least of those attempting to speak on their behalf. We might see a Russian intellectual wrestle with his conscience and ultimately lose in the wake of killing a shopkeeper to test his transcendence of normal morality. In other words, we can extend our range of sympathy and compassion. The value of this may not be immediately apparent, but a case can be made. Differences of race, class, perceived sophistication and countless other lines of cleavage make many of us at best distasteful to each other, and all too often that distaste turns to conflict. As Graham Greene stated the dilemma, “Hatred is a failure of the imagination.” If we can’t imagine the condition of others on our own, or lack the resources to meet them, we can still benefit when others do the hard work of imagination for us.
Even if none of these experiences applies, the play of sounds and rhetoric can cleanse the mental palate of its normal preoccupations. Jamaica Kincaid’s famous monologue “Girl,” a compendium of advice as heard by an adolescent, demonstrates precisely these qualities.
One does not have to be a woman of color from the Caribbean to appreciate the passage for ultimately impersonal reasons: the swell of the rhetoric and the network of free associations, the vigorous prose rhythms that lend themselves to poetic scansion and throughout, as the reader waits for the other shoe to drop, seeing how Kincaid works her way back from a flight of admonition beginning “this is how” to engage in or one or another activity as a proper woman rather than the refrain of “the slut you are so bent on becoming.” I cannot share the experience, but I can only relish the esthetics of its presentation.
In a time of increasingly pressed schedules and fragmented lifestyles, a particularly strong case can be made for short forms such as poetry and the short story. With the possible exception of recorded music, no other esthetic experience fits as readily into a workday. A short lyric or narrative can be read in a matter of minutes, but linger in the mind all day and longer. While a poem can often speak to or for our condition, in other cases our own preoccupations and worldview can be temporarily replaced by those of the poet, or permanently enhanced by them. Sylvia Plath’s description of mushrooms, or Pablo Neruda’s praise of tomatoes, might permanently change one’s experience of a produce section.
No less important is that a shorter form’s arc of experience is complete. There is no troublesome book-marking or trying to remember secondary characters’ names after an interruption. In a time that has seen the rise of the music video, it is perverse that there is not a greater audience for such work. Publishers, educators and poets themselves are in part responsible for this situation, but there is also a certain amount of willful disregard on the part of the reading public. A poem or a “literary” short story can frequently be demanding, requiring total concentration, but the same can be said for downhill skiing. The drawing of attention to things outside of the self paradoxically gives that self the gift of time that is not taken up with mundane concerns, or long-term worries. After an enforced break we can return to them refreshed and possibly with a broader perspective than before.
Yet the written word still suffers from inadequate marketing compared to other leisure options. Writers and publishers may need to move from their present strategies—or lack thereof—to what advertisers describe as stimulating demand. In other words, sensitizing an audience to a need of which it was previously unaware. People convinced that they are missing something often try to satisfy that new need. Eventually the non-readers on a bus may feel left out.
© J.D. Smith
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J.D. Smith has published two collections of poetry, The Hypothetical Landscape and Settling for Beauty, and in 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the United States National Endowment for the Arts. His work in various genres has appeared in Chelsea, the Los Angeles Times and Pleiades, among other publications, and his children's book The Best Mariachi in the World will be published in September 2008. John works as an editor and writer and lives in Washington, DC, with his wife Paula Van Lare and Roo the Rescue Dog.