My mother just recently sent me this link: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/03/a-slow-books-manifesto/254884/, which basically is a call to read more often and to read more literature. I’m all for this argument. We should all read fairly often, as much as possible. As the article argues, neuroscience confirms that reading, especially reading fiction, uses multiple parts of the brain and gets our brain waves going. Exercising our brains is important, of course, but where I take issue with the article is its argument that we read “classics” and “literature.” I almost expected the author to capitalize “literature” as “Literature,” because literature with that capital L demands seriousness, importance, and dare I say–pretension.
First off, I’m going to ask people to knock it off with the use of the word “manifesto.” Manifesto calls up ideas of call to action, Karl Marx, and revolutions. A manifesto is a clear-cut, straightforward set of ideals, or as Merriam-Webster puts it: “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” I recently read a book called My Green Manifesto by David Gessner. The title, for all its provocative-ness, gave readers a false set of expectations. I hoped for a direct message of how this man views being environmentally-minded and how his green-ness calls us to act. However, the book was little more than 200+ pages of rambling about his experiences, different books he’s read, various environmentalists he has and hasn’t met, contradictory statements, etc. The manifesto seemed more of a ploy on the part of the publisher rather than the actual intention of the writer, which brings me to this lovely article by Maura Kelly. She has a clear argument: “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.” from Michael Pollan. Yet her explanation and extrapolation leaves one wanting for more clarification.
This credo is a good one, albeit one the author didn’t think of herself. Where I take issue with this article is her argument that non-literary books aren’t as good as literary ones. The idea that only fiction can be literary (and she doesn’t even supply a definition of what “literary” is) is preposterous, and the further idea that only the classics can be literary is even more ridiculous. As a creative nonfiction writer, I can tell you here and now that the well written memoir (The Bell Jar, anyone?) belongs on the hallowed shelves of the classics as much as Dickens or Austen or Melville. On a side note, I find classics worship abhorrent. Classics are classics because they effectively tap into a part of the human story and speak to the human experience. In short, they help us understand what it means to be alive and to exist in the human experience. Treating them as infallible, uncorruptible, impeccable, flawless texts is both a disservice to the writing, as no author is perfect, and a disservice to the reader, who never is called to question or critically analyze what might not be perfect about this supposedly perfect text. More contemporary books that haven’t been canonized can still tap into this human experience and fall into what a classic should do. Additionally, the essay in and of itself is an art form. One only need read Montaigne to understand that the essay can be elevated to the level of the haute livre (a term I just made up). Even humorists such as Sloane Crosley and David Sedaris can and should be seen as “literary.” After all, we find them funny because we see a bit of our own lives tucked into the humorous corners of their works.
Kelly argues that magazine articles and newspapers don’t count as reading, and she insinuates that pop culture books preferable to a general audience aren’t worth it to make it into her manifesto either. I understand the idea that we should all burrow into the in-depth, long read that requires serious cognitive and critical effort, but I’m of the school that if anyone is reading and enjoying reading, they’re seeing the value of words, and that’s worth keeping around. Someone who reads the New York Times from front to back every day has just as much reading merit as someone who consistently reads Victorian literature. Or someone who likes to read is involved enough to read Time and Newsweek should get a little credit for recognizing the value of words and how they can communicate to a broad audience. For pop books, I say that as long as people recognize the joy and entertainment that can come from a book, I’ll tolerate even the Twilight series. Pop books get us out of the danger zone of Fahrenheit 451. As long as people recognize and care that books can move us and make us feel something (even if they weren’t written in the 19th century), they’re less likely to argue for the burning/banning of books.
But of course, I do have to agree that yes, we should all read more often. We should also practice deep reading more often ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/). Carr argues that the skimming, superficial reading encouraged by the Internet and some of those forms bashed in the “manifesto” hinder our ability to focus on longer pieces of writing. So we should practice stepping away from the computer, the search engine, the brief Internet article and dive into the book. But this book does not have to be “literary” fiction. It can be a book of essays, a memoir, contemporary fiction, contemporary nonfiction, biographies, history, etc. Just read something longer than two pages. Sit down with a book for more than 20 minutes and read straight. Don’t text; don’t check your e-mail; don’t tweet; don’t update your facebook. Just breathe and read. As Carr says, “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.” But we can achieve deep reading through more than the classic. We can achieve deep reading through a myriad of genres and styles. Let’s not limit ourselves. Let’s all read what interests us, what gets us to sit down for more than 20 minutes without distractions and read. I’m currently trying to get back into the swing of it, reading a little bit more every day. Because my work and school both are so involved with writing and reading, I sometimes push my own personal fun reading to the back burner when I get home at the end of the day. No more. I’m going to sit down with my Kindle and finally finish all those books that have been sitting untouched for too long.