It starts when you’re in the first grade. All of a sudden, reading is no longer this exciting thing you just figured out how to do, it has become “good for you.” You’re given free books through a program that says Reading Is Fun-damental, way before any of your teachers will tell you what “fundamental” means. Soon after you’re bribed with a free pizza from Pizza Hut if you can finish five whole books. The message is clear: reading is not something you’re supposed to enjoy, it’s something that will make you a better person.
It continues on into adulthood. We’re given continuous updates on the state of reading in our country as if it were the unemployment rate. Orlando Bloom shows up on posters in libraries, holding a book that you’re slightly surprised to see is right side up. “Read!” he tells us. Read, and you can be as effeminate as he is. If you’re the type of person who enjoys reading — and not just enjoys it, but takes four books on a five-hour flight just in case you finish one and then your back up book isn’t as compelling as you thought it would be and the thought of not having reading material fills you with dread — all of this can be confusing. I would get a lot more reading done if you would stop yelling in my ear about how important reading is, thank you very much.
For all this talk about how reading is good for you, is it really? Can reading actually change you? Maryanne Wolf says yes, starting with when you first learn to read. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, she explains how the human brain did not evolve to develop a written language. Instead, the culture evolved to develop one, and the brain had to adapt certain areas previously used for vision, object recognition, and abstract thought. Different languages use different parts of the brain, depending on whether those languages are written in alphabet or logosyllabic form (such as Chinese).
“There are no genes specific only to reading… Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, which are genetically organized, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations.” Every child has to rewire her little brain to figure out what Dick and Jane are up to this week. If they don’t learn to read and spend their lives illiterate, they will literally think differently than literate people do.
The more you read and the better you become at reading comprehension, the more of your brain becomes engaged in the act. Wolf calls this the “expert reading” level. When you read a text, your brain brings forth all related experiences from your life and from your reading history. As an expert reader, a more significant portion of your brain starts integrating that material into your thought processes.
Wolf is stronger when she’s discussing how the brain improves through reading, less so when she starts explaining how reading makes you a more compassionate human being. I’ve met too many writers and literary scholars to think that blanket statement is true. Wolf is a professor of child development, and that becomes obvious as she slips into the language of those Reading is Fun-damental campaigns. “When we pass over into how a knight thinks, how a slave feels, how a heroine behaves, and how an evildoer can regret or deny wrongdoing, we never come back quite the same; sometimes we’re inspired, sometimes saddened, but we are always enriched.” The examples she uses are, of course, writers like Proust and Dostoevsky, not breezy chick lit novels or the latest Da Vinci Code rip-off. How are people supposed to become expert readers anyway, from reading something pink with strappy heels on the cover to The Brothers Karamazov? That Wolf does not have an answer for.
When talking about this transformative power literature can have, Wolf quotes Joseph Epstein: “A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read.” That is something similar to what Mikita Brottman has written with The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, but she does not like what reading has turned her into.
The subtitle is misleading, Brottman admits. She is not against reading in and of itself. Literature is important, she says: “If you read the right kind of literature under the right circumstances, and if you read with enough attention and discrimination, you can change the way you understand yourself and the way you relate to others.” There’s no coherent thread to Brottman’s book, however. She wants to debunk some of the myths of reading — particularly the assertions by writers like Wolf that it is a very important activity, “like recycling” — and show that even some of the trashier books can be good for you, but from page to page, the book does not hold together. At one moment, she’s talking about why it’s good to read Hollywood gossip, the next she’s arguing that there is no such thing as the canon. Sometimes her arguments are compelling, and sometimes I want to beg her to end her chapter on what we can learn about the darkness of men’s souls from true crime books.
As I tried to find a unifying theme to Solitary Vice, I kept coming back to the sections in which Brottman blames her addiction to reading for a painful childhood. “I’d have been much better off if I’d listened to my dad and spent more time in the company of human beings.” She makes the mistake of thinking her own experience universal and slips into the second person to address teenage bookworms when obviously first person is more appropriate.
You start to appreciate the value of reflection and privacy, choosing isolation and solitude over social situations, which become increasingly awkward and difficult to endure. You start to anticipate and avoid occasions that make you bored or frustrated, those in which you’re forced to get involved, where you can’t retreat to the corner with a book. You get used to uncertainty, detachment, and silence, and turn to reading all the more, to make yourself feel less lonely.
Maybe the other kids think you’re rude and stuck up, and make fun of you for reading all the time. If you’re a boy, you’re teased for being a nerd; if you’re a girl, you’re a bluestocking or a bookworm.
It’s the second person point of view that bothers me. Brottman and I share a very similar reading history. We were early readers who saw the library as a candy store. We both were obsessed with rather macabre stories — she read everything by Edgar Allan Poe; when I was eight I read all I could about spontaneous human combustion to the point that I kept a glass of water by my bed, just in case. I snorted with recognition at Brottman’s description of Jane Eyre as the “plain girls’ bible.” I too read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a sexually frustrated 14-year-old, awkward-looking girl, which is also the only age that one can read Wuthering Heights and think it’s a romance. Strangely, puppy hanging becomes much more psycho than “tormented soul” after high school.
I am glad that the Brontës were there for me when I had no chest to speak of, when any marks on my neck really were caused by a curling iron and not by a 16-year-old boy. (Although I always thought Jane Eyre was a little bullshit — the plain girl finally gets her dream man, but only after he’s blinded and loses a hand? That’s encouraging.) But Brottman blames the reading for her teenage isolation. “Like a Victorian hysteric, I was paralyzed by fantasy, crippled by self-loathing, self-doubting inhibition — a problem that’s never completely disappeared, and probably never will.” Blaming reading for these problems is simply giving writers too much credit.
In her conclusion, Brottman urges readers not to read quite so much. Allow yourself to be caught on a bus without a book, or look up at your dinner companion from time to time. And by the time I reached her conclusion, I was ready to start a campaign to reinstate the reputations of bookworms everywhere. “Bookworms can hold a conversation about something other than Proust! We can dress ourselves, and we can make eye contact! We even have sex!”
Once you get past the alphabet’s rewiring of your brain, reading does not change you. Sitting down with Bridget Jones’s Diary will not transform you into a compassionate, intelligent, shiny new person. What you read and how you read can change you, if you are open to that and use your books correctly. If you are a teenage girl using books as a shield, convincing yourself — like Brottman — that the outside world has nothing to offer you, that is exactly what your books will bring you. Each person’s path through literature is different, and a book that changed my life will possibly do nothing for you. Finding those books is part of the fun — and the challenge — of a life spent reading. • 14 May 2008