Category Archives: Reading

Why Public Libraries Matter

I never feel more at home than when I’m in a library. Any library, anywhere. It doesn’t matter which cataloguing system the library uses, I can find the book I’m looking for. Even though I tend to experience claustrophobia in other enclosed spaces, this never happens in the library stacks. I love to browse the shelves, look way up and way down for hidden volumes, sit down on the floor or step stool and leaf through pages.

Since I work at a university I have daily access to the university library and I will always be grateful to it for giving me the research materials I need: books, journal articles in print and via the web, stuff in the rare book room and on microfilm and microfiche. But when I’m on campus, I tend not to work in the university library. I pick up my book (and maybe a coffee and a sandwich) and I leave. I leave the university library to the students.
When my job does not require me to be on campus, I head to the public library to do my work. In the public library there is just enough ambient noise to be soothing and not distracting. There are comfy chairs and big tables for writing. There are plugs for computers. The lighting is good and there are big windows offering views of the city. I love the strict no cellphones rule. Coffee can be procured downstairs. And people are constantly coming and going. Some, like me, sit for hours creating, writing, thinking, and reading. I like being in a place where my visual field is crowded with books. Paper things.

One of the best aspects of public libraries is that they are really public. There are no barriers (that I can think of anyway) to a person’s entry into a public library. You can be anyone and use this space. Even a young person in existential crisis as I suspect was the case with the teenager who was at the table beside me the other day–what better place for such a person to be? You don’t even have to be a card-carrying member to enter, use, and enjoy a public library. Public libraries feel like very democratic spaces where we can (silently) commune with a very diverse group of people. Where we can be alone and together at the same time. Where we truly experience the civitas.

Linda Warley is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at the University of Waterloo and also currently Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts. When she’s not doing administrative work she’s writing about and teaching life writing texts in diverse genres and media, particularly texts created by Canadians and First Nations authors.

Warley photo

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.

Why Does It Matter?

Why Does It Matter?

Within humanities fields we are becoming familiar with the wide circulation of narratives of crisis concerning the downfall of the humanities—these narratives understand that in this long neoliberal moment we are witness to the ongoing denigration of the arts and humanities across mass media, popular culture, and even the university itself. While such narratives present analyses that are important and necessary, we suggest that in addition to analyses of current conditions a better job could be done articulating palpable reasons why humanities education matters. Indeed, we believe the humanities matter and we want to work against a rhetoric and institutional practice that would suggest otherwise. Moreover, we recognize that perspectives on humanities education are multiple. This is a blog about why the humanities matter, but this is a blog that also attends to the multiple approaches, methodologies, subject positions, and affects of humanities work.

The author of each post has chosen how to define the “it” in Why Does It Matter? “It” might be reading. “It” might be the ways institutional memory can be passed on through humanities-specific research. “It” might be feminist scholarship. “It” might be conceptual poetry. Whatever “it” is, each author believes the subject of choice has a vital part to play in the unfinished project that is humanities education. Authors who contribute to this blog all agree that “it” does matter.

About the blog

The notion for this blog first emerged from a collaborative undertaking at the TransCanada Institute in Guelph, Ontario in the spring of 2013. The event in Guelph made apparent a need for a forum for brief articulations of diverse aspects of the humanities project.