From Our Staff | March 08, 2007

Tom Lutz has an interesting piece in Salon today examining the history of “How To Read Books” books, prompted, apparently, by Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.

Lutz’s piece begins by questioning why so many of these guides (Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000) is also featured) emphasize the alleged conflict between artists, who read for the sheer love of literature, and academic literary critics, who (it’s said) see literature only as a tool for explicating social issues or obscure postmodern philosophical principles.

Though this representation of the state of college English departments (which has been repeated often enough that it almost seems true) is provocative and good fodder for comments for the blogosphere, the more interesting claims develop towards the end of Lutz’s article. Here Lutz wonders about the concern that such guides to reading have perennially voiced since the 19th century with the overwhelming degree of literary production of the modern era. For all their prefatory gestures towards teaching “how to read,” most of these books end focusing the bulk of their attention on the question of what to read:

In fact, all of these guides seem more devoted to socialization than fulfilling their overt purpose; they are better for inducting people into the community of readers (or having them re-up), that is, than for teaching them how to read. They build community not by disseminating how to read, but what to read. Prose’s subtitle is a case in point: Hers is a “Guide for People Who Love Books,” but she obviously doesn’t mean for people who love “Mein Kampf” or “The Turner Diaries” or even Michael Crichton. She means not just those of us who like books better than, say, radio, but those who like a certain kind of book.

And so one begins to see the certain paranoia that develops among literary readers: we read for the pleasure of the text, of course, but we read also with the hopes of being able to share that pleasure with others. When there’s more and more good literary fiction coming from an increasingly diverse range of small presses and literary journals, the likelihood that, even as a dedicated literary reader, you have read much of the same material as the next few people in line who also consider themselves literary connoisseurs becomes less and less. In consequence, reading becomes less of a social activity and more a private indulgence.

I am not convinced that this is necessarily such a terrible thing, but it is, at least, a comfort that literary magazines still provide something of a reliable shared community, especially as more and more of them expand their online presence, though blogs and discussion forums.