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Now Read This

--or Don't, as MICA Professor Mikita Brottman Reluctantly Enters The Reading Debate

Michael Northrup

By Heather Harris | Posted 6/4/2008

"Whether isolation or books come first, I'm not sure," Mikita Brottman says. As a child, "I read not to join in, but to get out of the culture. I didn't read in addition to doing other things--I read as a substitute."

One of the great pastimes of the literati, aside from complaining about the Bush administration and attending live tapings of A Prairie Home Companion, is collective hand-wringing about the sad fact that Americans no longer read. Apparently, most of us would sooner watch Rock of Love--Bret and Ambre are so not going to make it--than pick up a novel. Enter Mikita Brottman: Maryland Institute College of Art professor, Oxford scholar, author, and patron saint of the tome-averse masses in her new book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. Brottman is the latest in a long line of philosophers and writers to question reading's value, and in this day of reading campaigns and self-important book clubs, the question of whether reading per se is a virtuous activity is timely. Brottman, unfortunately, is conflicted about her thesis and spends a significant portion of the book discussing other matters. But when she does tackle the issue at hand, she reminds us that earnest thinkers have wrestled with these questions: Why do we read? Why should we read? And should we ever be skeptical about this most virtuous of hobbies?

Surrounded by books in her Belvedere Hotel apartment, Brottman talks about her personal history, her reading philosophy, the psychology of reading, and reality television with equal enthusiasm. "If it's a slog, it's not worth it," she says, suggesting readers give books 60 pages to hook them. "Some books you're not ready for and you have to come back to them later on. If you have a tough time picking it up and getting involved and thinking about it, then you're not ready for it."

Conversely, "you can watch [reality shows] with an ironic distance: Why is this show so interesting and compelling, and why am I so interested it in?" she says, noting that Against devotes several chapters to defending celebrity bios and true-crime pulps. "There's something fascinating about that in itself. You find yourself drawn to this thing that everyone else sneers at--someone attempting to be airbrushed and polished, and failing."

Brottman's range of interests reflects the fact that she didn't intend to write a straight polemic. An introspective writer who will complete a second doctorate in psychoanalysis this year, she envisioned a book about gossip or a series of personal essays. But even though Brottman is neither dogmatic nor particularly interested in whether her personal experiences have universal applications, her publisher envisioned something feisty and confrontational--thus the thinly veiled reference to masturbation in the title. Brottman calls the end result a "compromise."

As is often the case with a compromise of this magnitude, the book's original and agreed upon purposes compete. As the reader, you often find yourself reading about Freud's case studies or the psychology behind America's obsession with celebrity or the author's relationship with an imprisoned murderer, thinking, That's interesting. Is it relevant?

At the heart of Brottman's argument against reading are her painful memories of growing up with books instead of friends. "There's no question," she writes in Chapter 1, "that, in terms of emotional development, books didn't help me at all." The only boy who noticed her growing up was the class mutant, and she holds books responsible. "Books got me into this mess. I'd been spoiled, not only by Wuthering Heights, but also by other love stories, including the plain girls' bible, Jane Eyre."

Jane Eyre ruined her love life? "Jane Eyre is the perfect book to ruin the lives of solitary girls in attics everywhere, girls who feel they've been given a raw deal, overlooked just because they're not pretty. At sixteen, with my greasy skin and tragic hair, I was immediately drawn to the inner life of the much-abused Jane, quietly watching Mr. Rochester being seduced by the empty nonsense of a frilly debutante."

Just as it occurs to you that perhaps we're dealing with a cause-and-effect error here, born in part of a sample size of one, Brottman cites the venerable writer Richard Rodriguez as another example of a child destroyed by books. Rodriguez, author of several books and contributor to publications such as Harper's magazine, grew up in a working-class Mexican immigrant family and writes extensively about how he got from there to here.

Brottman writes, "the sad life of the book-hungry child has often been described, but few modern writers have summed up the damage done by reading quite so perceptively as Richard Rodriguez." Books and academic success "distanced him from a people and a language he loved--even, in the end, from his own memories of himself."

Rodriguez has a reputation for being gracious and approachable, so it felt prudent to check Brottman's assessment with him directly. Presented with these passages for comment, Rodriguez is thoughtful. "I have always suspected that the children who most quickly and fervently `take' to books are, in some sense, already damaged," he replies in an e-mail. "Haunted by loneliness or lack of the ability or the power to say. . . . Reading can deepen that loneliness, lead the child to private worlds. But books also offer great consolation and company."

"I suppose I am," he replies when asked whether he is ambivalent about the value of reading. "But then again, I am ambivalent about many things in life that are also good. Everything comes at a price. To be a good student separates the child from his uneducated parents. That doesn't make education bad. It merely means that education has social consequences, not all of which are easy or pleasant."

Leonard Shlain, neurologist, surgeon, and author of 1999's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, is less subtle. "She's got it backward," he says on the phone from his home in California. "Introverted kids read--reading doesn't make them introverted."

The premise of Shlain's book offers a more radical caveat to readers: An excess of text and a dearth of images, he argues, are directly related to patriarchal systems and misogyny. "Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all done in the left hemisphere [of the brain]--the same hemisphere that controls the writing hand and the trigger hand for most people. The left hemisphere is the aggressive, masculine side."

Assuming that neither male (text) nor female (image) dominance is ideal, Shlain points to hunter-gatherer societies such as the !Kung as the best example of systems that have struck the egalitarian balance--but they aren't literate and never have been. So we don't know what a literate, balanced, egalitarian society looks like.

Shlain remains hopeful. "We need to recalibrate the power apportioned to each hemisphere," which he believes we are doing with visual media like photography. But he is by no means against reading, nor is he against reading campaigns and book clubs. "Today, the pendulum may have swung too far toward the visual," he says. "Reading clubs are worthwhile. Young people should be familiar with the metaphors of the Western canon. But don't shut down art and music. Cutting those programs withers those neurons [in the brain's right hemisphere] and leaves us with an unbalanced left hemisphere."

Shlain is not the first to propose a connection between reading and the battle of the sexes. Brottman writes briefly about Theophrastus, a follower of Plato who "noted that books are particularly dangerous for the gentler sex. Women, he claimed, should be taught only whatever is necessary to run a household." Otherwise they might become "quarreling, lazy gossips, or, even worse . . . serious, philosophical, and dissatisfied, not the easygoing, home-loving creatures nature meant them to be."

Be that as it may--knowledge often does breed dissatisfaction, whether it is obtained through primary experiences such as travel or secondary experiences such as reading--and ignoring the fact that, if Shlain is right, reading is more dangerous for men than women, the Greeks were also onto a larger flaw in the "reading makes you smarter" model.

Brottman devotes one paragraph in her book's introduction to the fact that Plato also "banned poets from his ideal Republic after being infected by the fears of Socrates, who, in his dialogues, made the case that books are an impediment to real learning." Misogyny and less actual learning--now we're getting to some real arguments against the virtues of reading. Socrates "saw [books] as artificial aids to memory and knowledge, like Post-its or CliffsNotes--useful for remembering things, maybe, but nothing the true scholar would have any use for. Books, felt Socrates, can only remind people of things they already know; real knowledge is gained from experience, not from dead letters."

Brottman doesn't spend any more time discussing the Greeks' mistrust of books and reading, which is surprising because, on many levels, the Greek argument is the most compelling condemnation of book smarts. First, it comes from our intellectual forefathers. Second, it rings true. Why are bookworms so annoying? Because no matter how sheltered you know their existence to be, they still insist they understand everything--from poverty to war to ecosystems to places you've lived or visited that they haven't--simply because they've read a book or article. Never mind the Volvo-driving, latte-drinking part, it's the New York Times-reading, never-leaving-Manhattan part that's infuriating. Knowledge gained by the seat of your pants, by finding yourself in the middle of something completely unfamiliar, something you couldn't and didn't prepare for, and figuring it out, is better knowledge than that gained by reading a trusted writer and highlighting the most interesting parts while sitting in your den. Of course it is.

In Chapter 2 of Against, Brottman takes her one stab at researching her thesis (in addition to citing, again in the introduction, Steven Johnson's assertion in his Everything Bad Is Good for You that video games and HBO dramas give us a more useful cognitive workout than reading literature). In order to gauge the public's reading habits, she sends out a questionnaire and gets 56 responses to questions such as "how do you decide what book to read next" and "can you read books in noisy places (e.g., on trains and buses)?"

"I rarely leave home without something to dip in and out of during the day," Brottman writes. "Even if I'm going out for dinner or to a movie, there are still a few moments when I might find myself alone . . . and it's difficult for me to simply sit still without getting restless." How different is she, or any of us who tote paperbacks around, from someone who cannot leave home without a cell phone or PDA? How different is needing a book when you're alone at a bar from needing your iPhone so you can rattle on inanely to some poor friend unlucky enough to answer? In both cases, the person cannot stand to be alone with his or her thoughts, and that's the problem. Book or a cell phone, they're both serving the same function: enabling someone to hide from life.

Here's one more obvious observation: No writer worth her salt is actually opposed to reading. That would be like a musician who's opposed to going to concerts. But for everything there is a season, and even a writer need not hysterically defend reading at all times, at all costs. Brottman concludes her book with a quote by Franz Kafka, the second to last sentence of which also appears at the top of Shlain's blog:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far away from any human presence, like a suicide.

A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

"You have to build up to the point where you can be stung," Brottman notes from the couch in her living room/library. "You have to build your palate to that level and then you can appreciate it--and then you can stop making distinctions between pleasure and pain, and entertainment and truth."

When you're not reading that sort of book, the kind that stings you exquisitely (Rodriguez, Shlain, and Kafka are good places to start), get out into the unknown, uncomfortable world with nothing in your hands that will distract you from what you find. And when you're not doing that, feel free to indulge in some Rock of Love--Season 3 should be starting any minute.

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