December 23, 2007

"You Are What You Read"

This week's New York Times Sunday Book Review includes a very interesting essay by literary scholar Leah Price in response to the recent National Endowment for the Arts report "To Read or Not To Read." Price's main point is that historically, widespread reading has not been the norm--particularly if by 'reading' is meant 'reading for literary experience.' Further, as she points out, excessive reading (particularly of fiction) has as often prompted anxiety as applause:
We’re not the first generation to invest reading with miraculous powers. But until radio and television dethroned the book, social reformers worried about too much reading, not too little. Advice about when and where not to read was once a medical specialty. In an 1806 diagnosis, a British doctor hypothesized that the “excess of stimulus” produced by reading novels “affects the organs of the body and relaxes the tone of the nerves.” Reading at the table interfered with your digestion, reading before lunch with your morals. Another expert, in 1867, warned that “to read when in bed ... is to injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system, your intellect.” Cue to the other in-bed activity that makes you go blind. Like masturbation, reading was too pleasurable for its own good; like masturbation, it threatened to upstage real human contact (messy, tedious, disappointing) with virtual pleasures. (read the rest here)
My own work on 19th-century criticism of the novel has had me reading and re-reading many examples relevant to Price's argument. Here's Anthony Trollope's (characteristically temperate) overview, from his 1879 essay "Novel-Reading":
Fond as most of us are of novels, it has to be confessed that they have had a bad name among us. Sheridan, in the scene from which we have quoted, has put into Lydia’s mouth a true picture of the time as it then existed. Young ladies, if they read novels, read them on the sly, and married ladies were not more free in acknowledging their acquaintance with those in English than they are now as to those in French. That freedom was growing then as is the other now. There were those who could read unblushingly; those who read and blushed; and those who sternly would not read at all. At a much later date than Sheridan’s it was the ordinary practice in well-conducted families to limit the reading of novels. In many houses such books were not permitted at all. In others Scott was allowed, with those probably of Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen. And the amusement, though permitted, was not encouraged. It was considered to be idleness and a wasting of time. At the period of which we are speaking,--say forty years ago,--it was hardly recognised by any that much beyond amusement not only might be, but must be, the consequence of such reading. Novels were ephemeral, trivial,--of no great importance except in so far as they might per¬haps be injurious. As a girl who is, as a rule, duly industrious, may be allowed now and then to sit idle over the fire, thinking as nearly as possible of nothing,--thus refreshing herself for her daily toils; as a man may, without reproach, devote a small portion of his day to loafing and lounging about his club; so in those perhaps healthier days did a small modicum of novel-reading begin to be permitted. Where now is the reading individual for whom a small modicum suffices?

And very evil things have been said of the writers of novels by their brethren in literature; as though these workers, whose work has gradually become so efficacious for good or evil, had done nothing but harm in the world. It would be useless, or even ungenerous now, to quote essayists, divines, and historians who have written of novelists as though the mere providing of a little fleeting amusement,--generally of pernicious amusement,--had been the only object in their view. But our readers will be aware that if such criticism does not now exist, it has not ceased so long but that they remember its tone. The ordinary old homily against the novel, inveighing against the frivolities, the falsehood, and perhaps the licentiousness, of a fictitious narrative, is still familiar to our ears. Though we may reckon among our dearest literary possessions the pathos of this story, the humour of another, the unerring truth to nature of a third; though we may be aware of the absolute national importance to us of a Robinson Crusoe or Tom Jones, of an Ivanhoe or an Esmond; though each of us in his own heart may know all that a good novel has done for him,--still there remains something of the bad character--which for years has been attached to the art.
Trollope, of course, goes on to defend the novel; many of his contemporaries, including George Eliot, were also eloquent proponents of the moral, social, and aesthetic value of fiction. The point is, though, that they had to argue for this--and one reason the merits of the novel, in particular, were controversial was precisely that the reading public was expanding and some saw the attractions of "literary experience" as undesirable or risky. Here's W. R. Greg, for instance, from an 1853 essay on the "False Morality of Lady-Novelists":
There are many reasons why we should look upon novels in [a] serious point of view. They are the sole or the chief reading of numbers; and these numbers are mainly to be found among the rich and idle, whose wealth, leisure, and social position combine to give to their tastes and example an influence wholly out of proportion either to their mental activity or to their mental powers. They are the reading of most men in their idler and more impressionable hours, when the fatigued mind requires rest and recreation; when the brain, therefore, is comparatively passive; and when, the critical and combative faculties being laid to sleep, the pabulum offered is imbibed without being judged or sifted. They form, too, an unfortunately large proportion of the habitual reading of the young at the exact crisis of life when the spirit is at once most susceptible and most tenacious--"Wax to receive, and marble to retain;” when the memory is fresh, and has a greedy and by no means discriminating appetite; when the moral standard is for the most part fluctuating or unformed;--when experience affords no criterion whereby to separate the true from the false in the delineations of life, and the degree of culture is as yet insufficient to distinguish the pure from the meretricious, the sound from the unsound, in taste; and when whatever keenly interests and deeply moves is accepted and laid to heart, without much questioning whether the emotion is genuine and virtuous, or whether the interest is not aroused by unsafe and unwarrantable means. Finally, novels constitute a principal part of the reading of women, who are always impressionable, in whom at all times the emotional element is more awake and more powerful than the critical, whose feelings are more easily aroused and whose estimates are more easily influenced than ours, while at the same time the correctness of their feelings and the justice of their estimates are matters of the most special and preeminent concern.

There are peculiarities, again, in works of fiction which must always secure them a vast influence on all classes of societies and all sorts of minds. They are read without effort, and remembered without trouble. We have to chain down our attention to read other books with profit; these enchain our attention of themselves. Other books often leave no impression on the mind at all; these, for good or evil, for a while or for long, always produce some impression. Other books are effective only when digested and assimilated; novels either need no digestion, or rather present their matter to us in an already digested form. Histories, philosophies, political treatises, to a certain extent even first-class poetry, are solid and often tough food, which requires laborious and slow mastication. Novels are like soup or jelly; they may be drunk off at a draught or swallowed whole, certain of being easily and rapidly absorbed into the system.
Like Price, I'm an advocate of "reading for literary experience" and would like to see it sought and practised widely and avidly. But it's salutary to be reminded that a "crisis in reading"--even "reading" itself--can be defined and measured in many different ways and to different ends. The N.E. A., Price says, "shuns...any use of literacy for something other than disinterested pleasure"--reading done for work or school, for example. Price's assessment of our current situation is certainly provocative: "It takes some gerrymandering to make a generation logging ever more years in school, and ever more hours on the BlackBerry, look like nonreaders."

No comments: