BY Leo Robson in Frieze | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141


Two new publications look at how reading is changing

BY Leo Robson in Frieze | 01 SEP 11

Now that reading is apparently over, we must prepare ourselves for statements in its defence. Alan Jacobs, an American academic, appears to have written such a book, but the reality is actually closer to the opposite. His title, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford University Press, 2011), doesn’t, it turns out, set ‘reading’ in counterpoint to ‘distraction’. Indeed, though he harbours some irritation, and nurtures a few pet peeves, Jacobs is neither indignant nor pessimistic. He merely wants to find ways of achieving deep concentration at a time when the prevailing technology – to which he is addicted, and of which he approves – tends so much towards rapid rewards. His proposed solution is to change the way we think about reading.

Jacobs identifies various enemies, but the powerful ones aren’t new. Steve Jobs may have said that ‘people don’t read anymore’, but the fact he subsequently released the iPad was an admission of error. Despite the general murmurs about declining standards, rising illiteracy, all-conquering indifference and mediocrity, a report produced in 2008 by the National Endowment for the Arts found that ‘literary reading has risen among adult Americans’. The enemies that matter, Jacobs claims, are not technology and change, but the old-school educationalists, or what C.S. Lewis called the Vigilant School, who discuss reading in terms of ‘obligation’ rather than pleasure. His book is essentially an encouragement to ignore the prescriptions of the ‘self-help, self-improvement model of reading’, which treats reading as ‘the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens’. In response to this, he offers his own injunction: ‘Read what gives you delight.’

This is a liberating message, but who is it aimed at? If Jacobs had followed this principle as a young man, he wouldn’t have ended up a professor; or perhaps he would have done, but only because one of the things that gives him delight – theology – happens to command the relevant respect. Despite acknowledging that universities have paid his salary all his working life, he makes use of historian Jonathan Rose’s argument, in his ‘great’ and ‘magisterial’ book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001), that the culture of reading was more dynamic before English literature was incorporated into the curriculum.

Jacobs’s regime, though intended for enthusiastic amateur readers, might have been designed for aspiring writers. Jane Austen didn’t study English literature, but as Jacobs informs us elsewhere, ‘Austen became the Austen we know largely through her reading’ – he says that this is ‘true of almost all writers’. And even since the rise of English, in schools and universities, most writers’ reading has taken place outside of the academic environment.

Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 as a novelist who has produced ‘trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat’, but he delivered his lecture ‘In Praise of Reading and Fiction’ (which has been published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). The first sentence runs: ‘I learned to read at the age of five, in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabamba, Bolivia.’ And from then on, though most of the lecture is concerned with reading, there is no further reference to formal education. When Llosa talks of ‘teachers to learn from’, he means the ‘innumerable’ writers he has read and admired. Those who have been sufficiently important to receive mention – or allusion – include Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner, who taught him ‘that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects’.

These names sound classic or canonical now – Jacobs recalls reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as part of a college survey course – but many of them were still at work when Vargas Llosa, born in Peru in 1936, started reading and even writing (his first book, the collection later translated as The Cubs and Other Stories, was published in 1959). He read the work of Albert Camus and George Orwell, for example, not as a diligent student but as an avid explorer, working his way through books in the confidence, or certainty, that they would turn him into a writer: ‘Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience.’ (This last phrase, which Flaubert used in a letter to Guy de Maupassant, is usually translated into English as ‘a slow patience’.)

Giving the same lecture back in 1976, Saul Bellow talked about his apprenticeship explicitly in terms of an escape from obligation and tutelage: ‘I was a very contrary undergraduate more than 40 years ago. It was my habit to register for a course and then to do most of my reading in another field of study. So that when I should have been grinding away at “Money and Banking” I was reading the novels of Joseph Conrad. I have never had reason to regret this.’ Bellow liked the memory enough, or thought the example sufficiently instructive, to use a similar formulation a decade later, in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987): ‘I was an enthusiastic (wildly excited) but erratic and contrary student. If I signed up for Economics 201, I was sure to spend all my time reading Ibsen and Shaw. Registering for a poetry course, I was soon bored by meters and stanzas, and shifted my attention to Kropotkin’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionist” and Lenin’s “What is to Be Done?”’ He added to the earlier riff a wonderful final flourish: ‘My tastes and habits were those of a writer.’

Saul Bellow, 2014. Photograph: Corbis/Kevin Horan. 

It seems that the more duties Bellow gave himself, the more widely he read for pleasure, or a different, less targeted form of instruction. The impulse to truancy is a strong one, and may prove constructive. When I interviewed the British novelist Tim Parks in 2006, he compared his situation as a boy growing up in an evangelical household to that of the fourth-century humanists: he discovered to his delight that there was such a thing as non-scriptural literature, and began to read it with a kind of inverse loathing that might be called passion. The novelist Juan Goytisolo, who is likely to be the next Spanish-writing novelist to receive the Nobel Prize, recalls, in his memoir Forbidden Territory (1985), how, or where, he acquired his taste for romances, geography and history: ‘My reading evolved exclusively within the family, without the slightest connection with what they taught or tried to teach us at school.’ The only effect that teaching had on his reading tastes was a negative one: ‘I even thought Cervantes’s universal reputation was suspect.’ When Goytisolo eventually overcame his prejudice against Don Quixote (1605–15), he was all the more annoyed with his ‘school textbooks’, for being insufficiently selective about what they turned him against.

John Updike, who often talked about his early experiences of ‘the reading habit’, was neither ‘rebellious’ nor ‘contrarian’ as a student. By the time he reached college he was through with comic strips, light verse and mystery novels, and ready for systematic study. But the writers who served as his acknowledged models, Marcel Proust and Henry Green, were not classroom discoveries. And though he did as he was told at Harvard, he nevertheless thought that ‘random reading’ was the ‘best kind’. Peter Carey, whom Updike described as a ‘very brilliant, very Australian novelist’, attended a good private school, but he says that his education ‘really began’ when he was working at an advertising agency almost entirely populated by aspiring writers: ‘I read all sorts of things in a great huge rush. James Joyce and Graham Greene and Jack Kerouac and William Faulkner, week after week. No nineteenth-century authors at all. No Australian authors, because I thought they were worthless, of course […] I read haphazardly but with great passion.’

The American historian Robert D. Richard found the ideal succinct phrase for ‘the creative process’ in the title for a recent book on Ralph Waldo Emerson: First We Read, Then We Write (2009). As Vargas Llosa portrays the matter in his Nobel Prize lecture, it really is as simple as that: ‘My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded […] perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it.’ Alan Jacobs uses the term ‘fanfic’ to describe ‘sequels or continuations of existing books written by an author’s most passionate followers’, but he also quotes the novelist – ‘that wondrous storyteller’ – Michael Chabon to the effect that ‘all literature […] is fan fiction. That is why Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence has always rung so hollow to me. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.’

Vargas Llosa and Jacobs both recommend variety of reading, or arbitrary greed, and talk about literature as a source of comfort or consolation, or form of escape, though neither is especially eloquent about what reading might do to or for us. Jacobs barely touches on the subject, perhaps out of fear of making reading sound nutritious; Vargas Llosa, apart from an intriguing, unexplored line about reading and writing constituting ‘a protest against the insufficiencies of life’, trades in semi-platitudes about understanding misfortunes distant from our own, and so on. Yet these two books, though poor in argument and lacking in rigour, nevertheless realize their claims about peripatetic reading – Vargas Llosa by virtue of having ended up a Nobel Laureate, Jacobs in the delightful quotations thrown up by his scavenges. And their shared message seems to be that reading is important, now as much as ever, not only because it delights readers but because it creates writers – because, in other words, reading breeds reading.

is the lead fiction reviewer at The New Statesman.