In Shyam Selvadurai’s most recent novel, The Hungry Ghosts, the main character Shivan is a teenager newly arrived in 1980s Toronto. He’s settling into the new city with his mother and sister, having fled the civil war in Sri Lanka. He’s lonely in his new surroundings. One day he sees a pamphlet entitled “Are You Gay?” in a bookstore. He slips the pamphlet into the book he buys and smuggles it home, not looking at it until his family is asleep before he has the courage to read it. A few days later, he calls the number in the pamphlet, which introduces him to gay life in his new city.
In this brief part of his story, you get a powerful illustration of why it matters. Why reading matters. Why the central activity of the humanities matters. Reading the pamphlet releases Shivan from the isolation he feels as a racialized person in white-dominated Canada and as a closeted gay man in his own family. It’s the secret intimacy of reading that allows him to connect with a community beyond the bounds of his given world. At the most basic level, this is why reading matters. Its privacy allows a person to engage ideas, scenes, or possibilities that she or he may not have the wherewithal to countenance in public or before peers. We talk about reading as escape. Maybe it’s an escape from loneliness, but it’s not an escape from the world. The privacy of reading is not solipsism. It’s connection to a wider range of experience.
Reading is listening to others, to people and experiences beyond our own familiar geography, but unlike other kinds of interest in others, it does not consume them. I know. Lots of readers take the writings of others and construct their egos out of what they have grabbed from them. Around the world, colonial systems try to steal Indigenous people’s knowledge. Nonetheless, compared to other kinds of consumption, the thing you read survives you. Even after totalitarians impose an approved interpretation, it’s always possible (maybe not safe, but possible) to re-interpret, to oppose the official version. The very ongoingness of interpreting makes reading irrepressible.
These days, I don’t think the big threat to the liberating power of reading is going to come from dictators. If there’s a threat, it’ll come from a culture of distraction. I don’t read as many poems, plays, novels, or books of criticism as I did ten years ago. That’s because I’m reading all day long. Truly. Mostly, I read email. By email, I mean reports, proposals, CVs, announcements, advertisements, notices, grad students’ chapters, departmental memos, government policies, and more. The inbox takes up 70% of my work day. And that’s not to mention Twitter, Facebook, or text messages. It’s too much. So I have to hurry, which puts me in the middle of that statistic that says people read 18% of the words on any given web page. We do “F-ing” reading: meaning that we read the first two lines, then let our eyes drop down the screen, never looking at what’s in the bottom right corner. We get used to scanning, rushing, surfing for the info we need. All of which looks like reading, but is F-ing reading, actually.
Shivan’s story of connecting is one I read in a novel. His story goes on to show how the gay community in 1980s Toronto runs the gamut from sexual predators to potential friends. How the pamphlet is not as complex as the real thing. As we read his story—not in fifteen minutes, nor in a hundred and forty characters—we learn about the nuance and density of his multilayered experiences. To escape our hurry and the alienation it makes, we have to stick to his story, read all the words, not just 18%, listen to the lilt of his voice in the book, relax into the time it takes for him to tell it all.
The humanities are famously bookish. There’s a good reason. Because the time we give to reading, to giving private and intimate attention to the words and experiences of others, makes us human in a diverse world of humans, helps us engage with worlds beyond our own without trying to own them, and breaks us out of the consumptive culture of distraction.
Daniel Coleman teaches and studies Canadian Literature, the literary and cultural production of categories of privilege such as whiteness, masculinity, and Britishness, the literatures of immigration and diaspora, and the spiritual and cultural politics of reading. He has published Masculine Migrations (U Toronto P, 1998), The Scent of Eucalyptus (Goose Lane Editions, 2003), White Civility (U Toronto P, 2006) and In Bed With the Word (U Alberta P, 2009. He has co-edited ten scholarly volumes on various issues including early Canadian culture, Caribbean Canadian writing, masculinities, postcoloniality, race, the retooling of the humanities, and displacement for the University of Alberta Press, The Journal of West Indian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing, Mattoid, Jouvert, Masculinities, and Textual Studies in Canada.