Reading and the Social
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 There may at first glance appear something odd in the suggestion that reading—understood today as an overwhelmingly individual act, generally conducted in and productive of relative isolation from the world—has such a profound connection to the social. Reading has not always been a private endeavor, of course, and as the example of the book club might suggest, it isn’t always undertaken alone today. It’s worth digging a bit further into the role that the social has long played in the reading process, as well as the contemporary relationship between reading and community, to explore ways that reading together can facilitate the development of connections not just between readers and characters but also among readers. Along the way, of course, we also need to ask what work needs to be done—and how we might do it—to ensure that the relations we build via reading projects remain open and questioning rather than self-reinforcing, self-serving states.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, recounts the gradual shift in reading practices from public (out loud, authority-led, common) to private (silent, individuated, personal). That shift brought with it a host of freedoms, both actual and imagined: “A book that can be read privately, reflected upon as the eye unravels the sense of the words, is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener. Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader” (51). The solitary reader is free to form attachments and interpretations at will, and can connect meanings across texts in an unfettered and—in both a resolutely positive and a potentially dangerous sense—undisciplined fashion. It is no accident, then, that church history is replete with associations between silent reading and heresy; private reading posed, and poses, direct threat to all manner of orthodoxy. On the other hand, as Manguel goes on to note, while “the ceremony of being read to no doubt deprives the listener of some of the freedom inherent in the act of reading… it also gives the versatile text a respectable identity, a sense of unity in time and an existence in space that it seldom has in the capricious hands of a solitary reader” (123). That sense of unity derived from experiences of social reading reaches beyond the text to affect the relationships between the reader and those being read to, as well as the relationships among those who read together. Though the freedoms and pleasures of reading have flourished in private, it’s worth contemplating the ways a continuing if non-coercive attention to the public aspects of reading can help support its role in developing and sustaining community.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Even the most private, solitary act of reading involves establishing and sustaining a relationship between the reader and the writer, however imaginary or constructed that relationship may prove. The work of creating that relationship is no less a goal of the writer than of the reader; as Alan Jacobs has noted, writers “publish at least in part because we want a personal connection. The more positive that connection the better, of course, but it must be human.” That the connection required must be “human” indicates the reader’s extensive agency in building a relationship with the author. Rather than simply evidence of being manipulated or led, this connection to the author demonstrates “something independently thoughtful and constructive in the reader’s response” (Pleasures 54). And that independent thought process, though conducted internally, is never fully individual; it reflects and manifests the reader’s desire for relationship with and connection to the world.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The mediated nature of readers’ connections, however, renders them prone to being considered illusory. Deirdre Lynch argues, for instance, that the eighteenth century “witnessed various projects intended to affirm the humanity that was lodged in the artifacts of the book market and thus to close some of the gaps between the living world and the paper world” (31), inventing connections that were a necessary condition of the market-based project of establishing what we now understand as the love of literature. However contrived in their anthropomorphism these projects were, they succeeded in far-reaching ways: readers today continue to find in bound volumes of ink-on-paper (or more recently, in digital files displayed on handheld devices) vibrant connections to authors and to characters. Whether scholars and other literary professionals understand those figures of apparent connection to be mere functions constructed by the text does not, on a most pragmatic level, matter. For many readers, these connections are real enough to produce significant personal responses.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Moreover, readers have the potential beyond such textually constructed relationships with authors or characters and to forge connections with a larger community of readers. At times this community is, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, imagined; a reader identifies as a reader (or as a reader of some particular author, or some particular text) and thus feels part of a group whose members he or she will likely never meet. Kuisma Korhonen argues that this “invisible textual community” may well be “the most radical community of all: those who do not know each other, who are not reading for any clearly determined purpose, who open themselves to the otherness of literary texts beyond all socially shared conventions of interpretation.” But that openness, when mediated through in-person or networked forms of communication, can allow for the creation of new kinds of communities that are something more than a mere textual effect. That is to say, connected communities of readers, sharing with one another the thoughtful and constructive responses that enable them to build relationships with texts and authors, have a social potential that exceeds the boundaries of reading alone.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In these communities of readers, what Alan Jacobs has described as “an odd combination of the intimate and the virtual” (Pleasures 135)—the connections that readers feel both with one another and with the authors and characters of their texts—demonstrates the potential of reading’s very real impact on lives lived both singly and in relation to others. And the relationship between the impact of reading on the individual life and that on the larger community should not be dismissed; Timothy Aubry argues, for instance, that books that appeal to the therapeutic paradigm—those books, in other words, that we would most expect to encourage an inward, individualistic attitude—in fact have the potential to bring readers out of a solipsistic focus on their own internal lives and to facilitate what he calls “disaggregated solidarities of affect” (202). In other words, the kinds of identification and relation that provide much of mainstream reading practices’ pleasure can also provide the basis for more outwardly-oriented networks of intersubjective support.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Reading groups provide one obvious manifestation of and location for such support. As Long has indicated, these groups not only create the space in which the readers who participate in them can “confront the wider changes they perceive around them and their own personal wishes, fears, dreams, and regrets,” but they also establish “a deliberative space that encourages reflective awareness of this process” (176). This reflective awareness can be transformative both for individuals and for groups, as the interpretations and analyses that members of reading groups share promote “a clearer articulation of partially formed perceptions and implicit assumptions, whether about a specific book or about personal experience” (187). In working out these perceptions and assumptions together, in other words, readers have the potential to open themselves to other responses and other subject positions, creating important connections both within the group and to the broader social world.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The reading group experience has been most famously expanded and mediated by Oprah’s Book Club, which connected discussions ordinarily relegated to private rooms and granted a degree of visibility to Korhonen’s invisible textual community. As Ted Striphas has argued in his exploration of this unlikely relationship between the television empire and the publishing world, the success of Oprah’s Book Club derived in no small degree from its practice of tailoring the reading experience to the actual audience that the show hoped to reach, a pragmatic approach that “engages actual and potential readers at the level of the everyday” (138). To reach its audience, to engage them in the discussions about books that the show’s producers wished to have, Oprah’s Book Club was required not just to select good books, but to find the right books for their readers—and, even more, to find clear, compelling ways to communicate to those readers that the book selected was the right book for them. The explicitly educational goals of the book club resulted in a more complex relationship to viewer desire than we might ordinarily grant to television, that most commercial of platforms. The book club’s audience sought a compelling reading experience within which they felt some personal connection. As Oprah indicated in an interview given in the last days of her show, the program’s overarching objective was “to let the viewer know that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone” (Stelter).
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This is not to say, however, that all connections forged through the discussion of books are necessarily productive or enlightening, serving the progressive ends for which we might hope. In-person book groups are very often homogenous and can work, however good their intentions might be, to reinforce the status quo. When faced with challenges, these groups can all too readily leave the difficult work of imaginative connection behind in favor of more solipsistic exploration. As Jacobs points out, the discussion in book groups frequently drops the books altogether, focusing instead on “other matters that they’re more deeply invested in, often their own emotional lives” (Pleasures 137). Long has further noted that existing social dynamics are not erased in the space of the book group. These groups can carve out a safe space in which the exploration of new questions about the relationship between self and world can be raised, but they can also all too easily silence such questioning through “informal processes of social control” including “[j]oking and a lack of responsiveness,” resulting in an enforced social conformity (187). These same dynamics, however, exist within the college classroom, and perhaps the most important role that instructors play is noticing those tendencies where they occur, calling attention to them when it is productive to do so, and re-routing discussion in more generous directions. While there are better and worse ways to imagine scholars playing a similar role in off-campus settings, this expertise could nonetheless be used (in conjunction with the kinds of listening discussed in the previous chapter) to help shape intellectually and emotionally productive informal group reading experiences. Not least, surfacing the work that instructors do in the classroom can empower students to carry forward these practices into to their own community discussions.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If scholars are to participate in extramural reading groups, however, it is crucial that we recognize the ways that our interventions can easily derail conversations and demoralize their participants. We must approach these encounters as occasions on which we have more to learn than we do to teach, opportunities, in Hochschild’s memorable phrase, to “scale the empathy wall” (10) that separates those whose worldviews are so radically disparate that mutual understanding seems impossible. Such an empathy wall, I’d suggest, separates scholars from general interest readers, and building the possibility of empathy is of paramount importance. Not only do recent studies in cognitive science seem to indicate a connection at the neurological level between reading fiction and the development of empathy for others, but empathy itself may provide a key ground for our social relationships, both with those close to us and those we do not know. Readers of literary fiction, scientists are beginning to suggest, have more developed abilities to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others, and those abilities can be brought to bear in settings in which the narratives provide a basis for discussion with others whose readings may be different. Scholars can be part of that process, but only if we are willing to take part in it, to recognize the ways our own empathy might develop in the encounter.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 We must recognize this, because whatever cognitive scientists may be coming to understand about the brain’s functioning, empathy is no simple mechanistic matter, and its development often requires moments of painful failure and always requires difficult, humbling work. And it is crucial work: while I’ve argued earlier in this chapter that the processes of identification in which many readers engage should not be so readily dismissed as superficial, identification as a mechanism for reading works best when it leads to something beyond recognition of the self, to the beginnings of a more broadly social understanding. In fact, unexamined identification presents real dangers for that understanding; as Dominic LaCapra has noted, uncritical identification can result in “the derivation of one’s identity from others in ways that deny their otherness” (83). This mode of identification not only promotes an essentialist model of selfhood—assuming an identity between self and other—but it also runs the risk of colonizing the other’s experience as one’s own, whether by taking over the other’s perspective or by projecting one’s own perspective onto the other. The reader engaging with work that actively courts an affective response needs to become critically aware of the effects of simplistic modes of identification, acknowledging, as LaCapra suggests, “one’s own opacities and gaps that prevent full identity or self-knowledge” (77). In so doing, the reader can enact a more ethical form of empathic identification, remaining open to the otherness of the other while nonetheless experiencing the affective connection.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 That is to say: scholars are right to be wary of the particular mode of identification that is promoted in many in-person reading groups as well as in mediated settings like Oprah’s Book Club, but not because of the appeal to identification itself. Rather, the problem is that the kind of engagement with characters and situations espoused by the book club is too often grounded in sympathy rather than empathy, resulting in a romantic, narcissistic notion of identification predicated on the obliteration of difference and working toward the ultimate goal of self-acceptance. As Alison Landsberg has argued, sympathy “presumes sameness between the sympathizer and her object, whether or not there is actually a ‘sameness’ between them” resulting in a mode of reading in which “one projects one’s own feelings onto another” (149). This is a mode of reading that clings to the “relatable” text, one that can be simply incorporated into one’s worldview without requiring change in response. Empathy, by contrast with sympathy, is often painful, a process that as LaCapra notes should not be understood as “an incorporation of the other into one’s own (narcissistic) self,” but that instead should provoke a recognition of “one’s internal alterity or difference from oneself” (76-77). Genuine empathy, in other words, results in self-questioning rather than self-confirmation. Where many reading groups, including large-scale projects like Oprah’s Book Club, seem to fall short is in focusing on personal growth rather than more complex modes of ethical engagement.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Ethical engagement with a text or with a community—a mode of engagement that encourages a critical awareness of difference and that promotes questioning rather than conclusion—can be a hallmark of the academy, but only if we are willing open ourselves to the same questioning we ask of others. It’s for this reason that Bill Readings, in describing the ethical practices that underwrite teaching and learning, draws on Maurice Blanchot’s conception of the obligation members of an ethical community owe one another: “an infinite attention to the other” (qtd in Readings 161). That infinite attention, as we saw in the last chapter, takes the form, first and foremost, of listening, but it’s a kind of listening that requires us not simply to take on board new information but to question what we already know. That is to say, in our engagements with texts and with other readers, we must grapple not only with the stories that others tell us, but with the parts of ourselves that resist or rewrite those stories. And this work is necessarily difficult: as Aubry describes Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the “central project in the novel is to construct, with the help of the reader, new utopian models based on the negotiation between author and reader, and this joint venture of collectively envisioning and producing paradise will necessarily be a difficult, endless task” (49).
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The question that remains is how we inspire both ourselves and others to remain committed to this endless task. How might scholars who care about literature, or history, or art, or philosophy, or any of the many subjects studied within the contemporary university, work to encourage general-interest readers to engage in the kinds of difficult reading and interpretation that the production of Morrison’s paradise requires? Is there a potential relationship that can be forged between the reader’s desire for identification and self-discovery in the text and a more challenging exploration of otherness? As Ann Jurecic has noted, readers do not automatically become “attuned to others” (12) in the act of reading; empathy, she argues, “is not salvation; it’s not certainty or knowledge; it blurs boundaries in ways that can be both generative and destructive. In the end, empathy is a practice, a process that extends in time. To make it work takes both effort and humility” (22). As we noted in the last chapter, practices, by their nature, must be practiced: no one is good at them right off the bat. Readers of all varieties, then, have the opportunity to practice the kinds of empathy that can help them become better readers precisely by reading together, by wrestling collectively with texts and their interpretation.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Doing so will require all of us, readers both inside and outside the academy, to be honest with ourselves about what we hope to gain from our participation in modes of social reading such as book groups. As Korhonen notes,
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 There are many good (and many not so good) reasons to read and to participate in actual working communities of readers: we may gain cultural capital, we may develop our emotional skills, we may learn more about other cultures, we may satisfy our curiosity, we may enjoy voyeurism, we may just want to kill time, etc. (Or, as professionals of literature, we may gain money.) But for the most part, these ‘reasons’ imply that there is some other, more fundamental desire for reading, desire that cannot be pinpointed or defined exactly, except perhaps by this loose and not really very clear definition: we read because we are not self-sufficient creatures, because we acknowledge (perhaps unconsciously) the imperative of the Other, the necessity to stay open to the call of otherness.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Academic readers might fulfill this call by demonstrating our own lack of self-sufficiency, by stepping outside the teacher role and practicing alongside other kinds of readers, staying open to what they may have to teach us.
Possibly you’re going to get to this, but…
Definitely social (incredibly social!), absolutely capable of inspiring personal change, and often critical enough (see e.g. examples of “fixfic” that engage with e.g. issues of power/oppression in a work that its author did not navigate successfully) to satisfy even hardened agonists.
Ficcers in ur litrachoor fixin ur fail. 😉
Happy to find you fixfic examples if you like. I definitely have a favorite or two in that vein.
I totally meant to talk about fanfic, and particularly the emergence of writing from reading. I’d love to know what your favorite fixfic examples are!
There is also an enormous amount of book discussion online and has been since the days of Compuserve. I did some poking around during a sabbatical … the results starting with this chapter of an online collection of essays, i in case it’s of interest. SO MUCH BOOK TALK going on these days it’s infuriating to hear over and over “nobody reads anymore” or “books are a thing of the past.” Bullshit.
Wondering how the argument would port to a different context: reading poetry, attending poetry slams … encounters based on connoisseurship or self-organizing audiences. In a piece from the 1990s (The Written, the Archived and the Active I proposed paying some attention to the academy’s relation to audiences, publics and communities and even had the cheek to propose some institutional rearrangements: