Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: The Solitary Vice / Against Reading by Mikita Brottman

As those of you who read this blog know, I keep a list of books that I read each year and write a few paragraphs about each book. I began this practice as a way of paying homage to Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately” column in The Believer magazine. I justified it by imagining that members of the congregation I serve and readers of this blog might be interested in what I read. But, lately I’ve been asking myself reflexive questions about the book list. Why do I bother to count the pages? What other motivations are at work here?

Another reason I have been thinking about the book list is that my relationship with reading has been a bit conflicted as of late. I panned 3 out the last 4 books I read in 2009. More recently, I also wrote a fairly harsh review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A reader of this blog commented that my review was unfair. It was. So, I went back and slightly edited my review and also wrote an editorial reconsideration of my original review. There hasn’t been as much joy in reading lately.

To help myself think this through I turned to a book by Mikita Brottman, a British psychoanalyst who lives in Baltimore and teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her book, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, is titled after a Victorian euphemism and proved itself to be a clever and provocative read.

In The Solitary Vice Brottman teases us with the notion that she is going to argue that reading is a waste of time. Of course she doesn’t really make this argument. Instead, she argues for us to rethink many of the assumptions we make about the act of reading and about the quality of different genres of books. Her book is largely a work of rhetoric.

In her outstanding introduction Brottman offers an alternative take on the pro-reading, pro-literacy campaigns of the last three decades, reminding us that for most of history reading has been regarded with contempt, suspicion, or fear. She asks if slogans like “reading makes you a better person” are meaningless and empty. She argues that “there’s nothing inherently worthy or decent in the act of reading itself.”

Later in the book Brottman argues that social ideas about reading, and especially about what types of books a person ought to read, are actually ways of enforcing ideas about social class. She mentions that there seems to be a stigma attached to not reading (or being unable to read) that is not attached to many other areas in a person’s life that may be lacking. Brottman points out that people experience a sense of shame when they admit that they can’t read or often feel deficient when they say that they are not readers. On the contrary, people will happily joke about being tone-deaf, not having rhythm, having two left feet, being clumsy, being bad at athletics, or having lousy handwriting. There is no social stigma in claiming to be lousy at math even though innumeracy may be just as harmful as illiteracy.

Throughout much of the latter half of The Solitary Vice, Mikita Brottman challenges the position of classic literature and literary fiction atop the hierarchy of writing. Instead, Brottman recommends several overlooked genres that we might read instead of classic literature. Four of those genres? Hollywood gossip books exposing the lives of celebrities, true crime writing, books about serial killers, and psychoanalytic case studies!

I found Brottman’s psychologically tinted exploration of “reading neuroses” to be the most engrossing part of the book. She writes about hoarders, book collectors who assemble immense personal libraries but seldom have time to read. Then there are the obsessive-compulsive types who have rigid rules about the handling and care of books. And then there are all types of book fetishists.

And then there is Art Garfunkel. And, the part about Art Garfunkel hits really close to home because I do some of the same things that he does. On Garfunkel’s personal website he maintains a list of every book he has read since 1968, when Simon & Garfunkel were at the top of their musical game. The list contains very little fluff. It seems like Art Garfunkel is on a mission to read all of the great books in the history of western civilization. On another page where Garfunkel maintains a list of his 150+ favorite books of all time he actually tracks the number of pages in each book. This was the part of the book that made me cringe as I noticed my own Garfunkelesque tendencies. Unlike Garfunkel, I don’t ever plan to read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style from cover to cover, much less twice in the same month as he did in April, 1984. I don’t ever plan to read the Random House Dictionary cover to cover as he did in May, 1993. And, once I finish a book I don’t seal it in a protective plastic covering and place it in my own personal library that is arranged chronologically by the date I read the book!

All in all, even though The Solitary Vice dragged at times I found this book to be incisive, provocative, funny, and thoughtful.