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."
Brottman recounts tales of sex and death inside libraries, and stories of impoverished intellectuals evading detection and living among the shelves. "I knew a graduate student at Oxford, a philosopher who...lived in his library carrel for over a month, peeing into an empty milk carton..." (Whoa.) My favorite part of the book comes later in that chapter, when she shares the responses from a survey she sent to friends, asking them the details of their reading habits. When she asked if people ever dog-eared or wrote notes in books, she got responses like "I'd seriously punch someone who dog-eared my books;" and "Dog-earing...is analogous to twisting the arm of a child." How people organize and catalog their libraries and how they decide what to read next really does have a whiff of religious practice, or maybe mental illness.
The second half of the book is where Brottman lost me. She veers away from the central premise and dives into long analyses of her favorite genres of book, all of them allegedly trashy and bad for you. She dedicates a chapter each to serial killer true crime books, Hollywood tell-alls, gossipy author biographies, and psychiatric case studies. Although you might learn more than you ever wanted to know about the Yorkshire Ripper, or Philip Roth's divorces, the main point about human reading habits kind of falls by the wayside.
And though I'm aware that Counterpoint (the book's publisher) is a small indie publishing house without a lot of money to throw around, they'd be well served by setting aside a little cash to hire a professional graphic designer. My enjoyment was marred by odd margins and badly reproduced photographs (some of them so dark or so low-res and pixillated that you can't tell what the picture is supposed to be.) That, plus the inclusion of a bunch of amateurish drawings in a dozen jarring styles made the book look confusing -- until I read the acknowledgments, wherein Brottman thanks an illustration class at the Maryland Institute College Of Art, where she teaches, for all their help with the book -- a generous gesture, but a really bad idea.
Brottman wavers a bit, but her point is made. When you really start to look at it, the behavior of the avid reader appears more and more insane. Why, for example, do people pretend to have read certain books when they haven't? (It's such a widespread phenomenon that a book called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read is currently a bestseller.) "You wouldn't pretend to know your way around Chicago if you haven't been there," Brottman points out. Her recommendation for those of us ruined by reading is pure sacrilege -- "Don't give in to your prejudices; don't read books just because you feel you "ought to," because they'll be "good for you;" do it because you can't help yourself." In other words, stop pretending that reading is a noble pursuit, and just read what you want, when you want. As a hopeless book addict and pusher, I couldn't agree more.
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Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED