I have been ruined by reading. And if you are bothering to read this, you probably have, too. Are you miserable when stuck somewhere, like on a train or an airplane, without a book? Does the idea that our nation is full of non-readers fill you with nameless dread? Do you have obsessive habits that dictate how you select and care for your reading material? Although the culture loves to crow that reading is good for you --"fun-damental," in fact -- let's face it, a serious reading habit can also be more than a little creepy. This is the thesis of Mikita Brottman's hilarious, tongue-in-cheek "indictment," The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. In making her argument that being an obsessive reader makes one socially awkward, she holds herself up as an enthusiastic, unapologetic Exhibit A.
The book's title comes from a Victorian euphemism for masturbation. Reading, Brottman argues, has more in common with masturbation than with any other leisure activity that humans routinely engage in. Think about it. People often tell half-truths or outright lies about how often, and what, they like to read. The act of reading absorbs your full attention, and cannot really include another person (two people could read side by side, and often do, but you're not really sharing the experience.) Usually, it's an occasional diversion, a pleasant relaxing activity. But for some people reading can become a lifelong, compulsive -- albeit highly enjoyable -- addiction.
Obviously, Mikita Brottman isn't actually AGAINST reading. She wouldn't be a writer and Oxford-educated English professor if she was. But she does encourage us to take a few steps back and be more realistic in what we expect an avid reading habit to do for us. There's no solid evidence, she says, that reading a lot of books will make you a smarter, better, or more interesting person. "Yes, books can take you to wonderful places, but they can also leave you stranded there, alienated and unemployable, lonely and classless, isolated from other human beings, even from your own memory, your own experience of yourself."
Sounds pretty harsh. But not so harsh in the context of Brottman's own life. She recounts a lot of cringe-worthy anecdotes from her 1970's Yorkshire adolescence, a time when she spent so much time in the attic reading Victorian romances that she has stronger memories of story plotlines than of the events in her own life. Brottman contends that there's something about the act of reading, specifically, that caused her dreamy isolation -- although she sounds pretty similar to kids obsessed with World Of Warcraft, or the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or any activity in which the lonely and the shy get to pretend to be someone else for a while. At least those kinds of activities involve a shared experience with other people. When you read a book, you can only read it alone.
I was almost ready to dismiss Mikita Brottman as a weirdo. But then she hooked me in with Chapter 2: "In the Stacks," which can only be described as Library Porn. The Bodleian Library at Oxford is part of the UK's "library of legal deposit," meaning it houses a large percentage of all the books ever published in Britain. The stacks are "eleven stories deep, connected by underground passageways. The process of retrieving a book, like some occult ritual...began with the librarian putting a copy of your order slip in a sealed tube and sending it down a pressurized vacuum chute to the basement."