Why Does Reading Matter?

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 headshot feb 2011 011 (600x800)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.

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5 thoughts on “Why Does Reading Matter?

  1. Nice post, which I enjoyed reading. I wonder, however, whether the assumptions that we so often make about the value of the kinds of reading we do aren’t flawed, or at least reductive. You seem to acknowledge yourself that we probably don’t “read” less; rather, what we read has changed, and this has impacted upon the way we assimilate content. This is the same kind of argument about electronic literature that Sven Birkerts was making nearly 20 years ago, that it has reduced our capacity for “deep” reading.

    Perhaps. I’m not entirely convinced that this shift represents a “dumbing down” or lack of engagement with what we read: younger generations of readers may be reading content doled out in bite-sized portions on Tumblr or Facebook, but the evidence surely suggests that they are intensely engaged with it, even if the nature of that engagement has changed.

    More to the point, however, we in the Humanities need to demonstrate that the kind of reading that you are privileging here, the “deep” reading that engages with text at a reflective, and self-reflexive intellectual level, is *important*. It’s not enough to say that novels and poems are valuable: we have to make clear that the commitment of time and mental energy they require is worthwhile.

    Simultaneously, we need, I think, to stop making this a zero-sum game, and address the ways in which the kind of reading that social media (for instance) facilitates and encourages can be constructively addressed and even exploited by the Humanities. It’s not enough to wax elegiac: the Humanities has to be militantly forward-looking, or we will come to be what many already think we are: reactionary holdouts.

    • doctorsara says:

      I agree completely with this comment. I find so many English departments are “protecting” a particular (and rather imperialist) form of literary study rather than embracing what’s here and now (which is completely related to what’s been). Of course what we do is important but it must be adaptive, inclusive and receptive rather then elitist, dismissive and protectionist.

  2. Reading is SO important … when I went to grad school my plan was to focus on the use of fiction in treatment programs for adolescents … that got derailed, unfortunately…. Still something I strongly believe in and would like to pursue though.

    • I agree wholeheartedly — that’s a wonderful idea to focus on fiction (and also poetry) in treatment programs for adolescents. I think the blog shows how reading fiction (and also other imaginative writing, like plays and poetry) can take us emotionally and intuitively into the worlds of “others” and thus connect us to those worlds, experiences, and feelings. As we take the time to listen to this fictional character telling his story in his own way, we see the story from inside, from his point of view, and expand our own humanity.

  3. Diana Brydon says:

    Reblogged this on Diana Brydon and commented:
    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.

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