Monday, August 02, 2004

More About Reading

One good thing that has come out of the whole NEA study on America's reading habits is the sudden flury of discussion over what it means and what role reading plays in our lives. In Today's NY times, Mark Edmundson writes about The Risk of Reading (via Maude). No, the article is not about reading banned or dangerous materials in areas where free speech is just a dream. The article is about the risk that reading is to socialization.

But it is worth bearing in mind that reading's promise is tied up with some danger, too. To me, the best way to think about reading is as life's grand second chance. All of us grow up once: we pass through a process of socialization. We learn about right and wrong and good and bad from our parents, then from our teachers or religious guides. Gradually, we are instilled with the common sense that conservative writers like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson thought of as a great collective work. To them, common sense is infused with all that has been learned over time through trial and error, human frustration, sorrow and joy. In fact, a well-socialized being is something like a work of art. Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn't quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don't fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don't read for information, and they don't read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.
Edmundson goes on to use the example of Walt Whitman who was a has-been journalist, a mediocre fiction writer and a carpenter until he read Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson lit the spark of the great poet he was to become. Edmundson makes a good observation, but I don't think he is entirely right. Yes, reading can, and does, upset the social order, but to claim that people read in order to re-socialize themselves? I don't think people consciously make this choice, I think it just happens as a natural byproduct of reading widely. I think it begins as a spark of surprise, like Whitman reading Emerson. After the original spark there is perhaps a more conscious choice of reading material, but up until then I think people read for other reasons. And even afterwards, there is more than one reason to read. Why must there be such a narrow focus? Seems to me that it defeats the purpose and limits the scope of re-socialization, if that is what's going on. Note: The NY Times requires that you register before you read the article. Registration is free.