You’ll go blind doing that

Pub date April 15, 2008

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ISBN REAL Nobody knows better than writers that there’s nothing inherently special or ennobling about reading a book. Fiction abounds with infatuated references to studious ritual, yet there’s also no shortage of passages that portray reading as a distraction, or an ingredient in a tedious bourgeoisie mating dance. The Great Gatsby (1925) may stroke the ego with its halfwits who treat books as props, but Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) get straight to the point and portray reading as a fool’s pastime.

It still brings me down a bit when I think of that blip of a minor character in Wilson’s book martyred to this belief: a sort of intellectual Margaret Dumont. Here was a woman who undoubtedly read millions of words — and good ones — and all it got her was the position of deluded gadfly.

Meta-masochism is hardly required to appreciate the point that books ain’t all that. There are plenty of sad reminders in the three-dimensional world, like an acquaintance of mine during college who sported on his backpack a button with the mating call "I STILL READ BOOKS." Clearly we had an enlightened soul on our hands, one with an intellect of such dexterity, no less, that he somehow pulled off the Orphean mental journey necessary to think Pay It Forward was a high-quality movie. The world is so full of bookworm poseurs and onanists it’s hard not to question one’s own motives for curling up by the fire.

Mikita Brottman’s new book, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Counterpoint, 224 pages, $14.95) takes a crack at this question on our behalf, attempting a scholarly treatise against the assumption that reading, in and of itself, makes you a better person. Brottman, a language and literature professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, wonders if perhaps our faith in the alchemical power of the practice "draws its power from a toxic brew of magical thinking, narcissism, and nostalgia."

Them’s fightin’ words. Unfortunately, Brottman’s punches don’t land nearly as often as they should. It would be hard to find the academic who could give the hyper-literate life a sound thrashing. But to maintain a modicum of fidelity to one’s thesis, not to mention one’s doubly barbed title, seems a modest expectation. The articulate introduction of Brottman’s book, sprinkled with aperitif-caliber evidence, lugs behind it 200-plus pages of disposable items from the trove of idiosyncrasies that is modern readership. Equal parts trivia, anecdotal digression, and halfhearted cautionary tale about the perils of culture-sanctioned solipsism, the result is not easily distinguishable from a valentine to reading.

I picked up Solitary Vice expecting to intermittently yell, "Preach it!" and have my opinions about literary fetishism fortified with case studies and garnished with academic authority. I don’t buy the spiritual democratization argument put forth in books such as Mark Edmundson’s 2004 Why Read? (Bloomsbury USA, 160 pages, $12.95). A book’s availability is the democratizing factor, not its contents. It seems wise that we’re introduced in our dumb-ass youth to the many types of intellectual life ripe for the plucking if we ever become so inclined. What’s not wise is assuming that students shouldn’t shuck those disciplines they find obnoxious immediately upon leaving school — that the best examples of literature aren’t at their core well-executed indulgences of an impractical enthusiasm. My reading life has helped the world only inasmuch as the world has to put up with a much less cranky person.

I will not fault you, Mikita Brottman, if you humbly disagree. *