I just came across a gushing Editor’s Note in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers that deserves a refutation – actually, it deserves being pissed on from a great height. After some excusably rhapsodic prose about the cover shot of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses (which my 5-month-old daughter likes), Mary Gannon says:
“It’s through reading that we engage with the larger truths of being human. In books, we experience our private struggles as universal and come to realize the value of compassion, which is the first step toward creating a more civil and culturally rich society.”
What self-serving nonsense. Personally, I engaged with the larger truths of being human by watching my daughter being born, facing personal catastrophe, falling in love, all kinds of other occurences. My experience of those may have been slightly influenced by what I had read, but no way was my confrontation with what it means to be human happening on a page, or a screen, in the form of words.
I may have had the good fortune to learn from some of the finest minds in human history by reading, but that happened because they happened to write, and language was a uniquely durable medium for preserving and passing down what they said and thought. But it delivers a residue, nothing more. Over time, of course we’ll elect for the best, but to dignify reading with the merit is the worst kind of media-is-the-message fallacy.
The best and finest who didn’t write are unjustly mute, cut out of personal contact with generations to come. They don’t deserve that exclusion. And reading doesn’t deserve that elevation. A fine and private thing, yes, but reading in itself doesn’t lift you above the pack, take you higher, do whatever else it is that someone casting about for a spurious sense of self-importance wants. When I see the kind of bilge that sluices through any genuine list of “New Books In Print”, and reflect that much of that stuff will actually get read, it’s enough to devalue the act of reading. Plus, when someone starts telling you that the ultimate good of private act X Y or Z is not personal and private, but for society, you know that they’re a bogus apologist.
Reading is one arena, only, where the confrontation with human reality may start. Rather than compassionate, it is terrifyingly dispassionate. And it is likely to fail you, like most every such confrontation. Read if you dare, at your peril. Go on, read.