By Allen Michie
Books Promiscuously Read sets a high standard for what might become an exciting new genre of literary criticism for educated general readers.
Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life by Heather Cass White. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 175 pages, $25.
I have an old friend who made me blue peanut gritsickles as a wedding gift. He regularly sends me macrame frogs from garage sales, subscriptions to School Bus Fleet magazine, vacuum cleaner memorabilia, and the like. I gratefully acknowledge these gifts, but I confess that some don’t stay fixed on my radar for long. Recently, however, he sent me a copy of The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists, a cult work of Science Fiction by Arthur Byron Cover in 1973. The concept is intriguing (yes, it really is about a Platypus of Doom and other animal gods of Existentialist angst in an alternate dimension). This time I thought, what the hell, I’d give it a try. It was a book that spontaneously crossed my path unbidden, it was something that would certainly take me out of my usual life and routine, and it was something that would no doubt expand my horizons.
I made it halfway through, just after finishing the title story and “The Armadillo of Destruction,” and I decided that life was just too short to press onward to “The Aardvark of Despair” and “The Clam of Catastrophe.” So is my glass half empty, or half full?
The Platypus of Doom was my Guinea Pig of Experimentation for University of Alabama’s Heather Cass White’s Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life. Her thesis is that it’s best to think of reading not so much as something we do, but as a way of living. From there, it’s worth exploring in depth exactly where, how, and why reading can make our lives richer. She acknowledges several times, non-judgmentally, that the reading life is not for everyone: “Everyone has a soul to tend. No one has a final answer about the soul’s care and feeding.” But those of us who are life-long readers have the keys to a box of infinite riches, and White’s book will remind you to never take that astonishing gift for granted. “People who like to read should do more of it,” she writes simply.
Books Promiscuously Read is pitched just right to put that message across. It is not quite a book for all levels of general readers: there are no patronizing encouragements for reluctant teens to pick up something other than Manga novels. It is also not quite a book of academic literary criticism: there is no name-dropping of Reader Response, Reception, or Phenomenological theorists to expound on the rather obvious point that literary texts mean different things to different people in different contexts. Overall, general readers should have no trouble with this book (citations and names of quoted authors are moved to the back so they won’t interrupt the flow) and their reward will be the discovery of entirely new ways to think about the processes and rewards of reading. Academic literary theorists and professional readers will find White valuable because she offers close readings of selected works (and an uninhibited association of diverse texts) which show what happens when an open and intelligent mind is reading deeply, and often.
The book is thoughtfully organized, not by genres or intellectual history, but by readers’ positions in relation to the act of reading: Play, Transgression, and Insight. Before and after these chapters are Propositions and Conclusions, and they are both worth re-reading once you’re finished. White models what she advocates. Her committed life of reading has made her insightful — wise, even — and she wants to show you what your reading can do for you. There is sometimes a certain Zen-like feel to her writing that is quietly reassuring while it is challenging: to empty yourself out is to fill yourself up. “Not everyone has to be a reader. If reading is what William James called a ‘living option’ in one’s life, however, if it is a possibility felt to any extent, then it is good to do it with one’s whole attention, while also asking nothing in particular of it, or of one’s self, while doing it. Reading in this way is doing something, not failing to do something else.”
This is a simple truth that is surprisingly apt for our times. How often do you have to clear your mind of one kind of guilt or another before you can open yourself up, fully, to what a text has to offer? You sit down, comfortably, perhaps with a blanket/cat/mug of tea, and here comes the incessant knocking at the mental door: I should be working on that deadline, getting to sleep, doing the dishes, calling my mother, emptying the trash, walking the dog, paying attention to the kids, checking my email, &c &c &c. White hears you, but she gives you permission to let it all go. She writes in an affirming and authoritative voice: “Much of what looks like external pressure is actually the mask of internal reluctance. Reading without purpose is playful, and play is not easy for adults. It induces a ‘perfectly useless concentration’ that will not make the reader seem or feel productive.” The door is wide open for White to discuss Jacques Derrida and Mikhail Bakhtin and their nuanced theories of “play.” But she doesn’t set up a theoretical shop. This book is no more complex than it needs to be: “There are no prizes for reading, no pay raises for it, no competitive advantage in it. It accomplishes nothing. All reading has to offer is a particular, irreplaceable internal experience. Readers should keep faith that that experience is enough.”
Part of the challenge of learning to play is taking the dare to read freely. Rather than building elaborate scaffolding — the brick and mortar of literary theories, defined approaches, and recommended reading lists — White advocates for “promiscuous” reading: “It is essential that our reading stays wild. It is not coincidental that students are bored by books they are required to read, even when those books began as scandals and guilty pleasures. . . . It may be that the most important function of required reading is to stimulate our resistance to it in the form of reading that is haphazard, spontaneous, whimsical, contrarian.” Hence my picking up The Platypus of Doom to alternate with reading Books Promiscuously Read. (You can find a wealth of whimsical and contrarian books in B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites, enthusiastically reviewed here on the Arts Fuse, as a reliable Tinder of sorts for your next promiscuous reading hookup.)
But here’s the roadblock: The Platypus of Doom just wasn’t very good. I felt like I was wasting time reading it, and I felt a bit silly. Those of us of a certain age feel the clock ticking, knowing the list of books we want to read will be much longer than the list of books we will ever get to read. What does White have to say about bad books?
This is a bit harder to tease out because it runs against the grain of her central thesis that we should put more conscious effort into opening up ourselves to what books do as a form of action. Her approach to aesthetics is that we should always assume the best of what we read and create a space for whatever it offers us. Poetry, for example, is the genre that most challenges many readers, and White states that our uncertainty about not “getting it” can be leveraged into a liberating experience of play. Take in a few verses of Gertrude Stein, then read this: “At least, in reading poetry we are open to the possibility that each facet is an essential part of the work’s nature, and cannot be altered without affecting every other facet. . . . Our sense of companionship in reading, of having found a mind to play with, often occurs irrespective of what a writer has to say. It is in her attention to its saying that we meet her.”
Prose, likewise, provides its dividends, and when “attention is palpable at every end of reading’s scale, from the widest narrative and thematic sweep to the smallest cluster of its phonemes, its effects can be dazzling.” (She supplies a jaw-dropping extended sample when she unpacks a sentence from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, via Don DeLillo’s Underworld.) However, White is also good on the paradoxically fascinating issue of boredom (“play’s opposite”). White begins with a Zen-like koan: “To accept what is (which does not mean to like it) is to continue to play with it, even if that play involves doing nothing at all.” The trick — and this seems true — is not to get angry at tedium, which causes “our capacity for listening to atrophy.” Boredom is inviting. It can “appear seductively like rest,” which makes it an easy strategy to escape the risk, surrender, and indeterminate nature of play. “The mind under threat, in an attitude of defense or aggression, or the fatigued mind, sees only the exposure play requires as well as the letting go of a sense of justice. . . To a contracted mind, freedom feels like a sting, like a sleeping limb starting to wake up. Allowing the flow and inrush of feeling, to a certain temperament, after a certain period of statis might seem too painful.” Is it unconfortable to accept the possibility that a boring book might be stimulating, that it can startle us with an inrush of feeling? Perhaps so. Becoming bored with reading can easily become a habit. It’s not just physically lazy — White proves that it’s also emotionally lazy. We can do better.
There are other enemies of playful reading. Another is bad readers. White’s well-chosen archetype is Mr. Casaubon from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Casaubon, in a stinging rebuke to academics of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, “approaches books entirely as a finite game in which personal power is at stake. . . . Mr. Casaubon cannot give himself away. Instead, he clutches what little he has, grips and holds it, and in this way tries to keep it. He asserts himself in the face of his books and so shuts himself off from being fed by them. . . . Maddened by his own hunger, he turns with malice on those who are full, demanding that they join him in starving.” White’s perceptive analysis of Middlemarch also sets up a brilliant (and unexpected) comparison between Dorothea and Don Quixote (Quixote is male, so his freedom incites laughter; Dorothea’s transgression is “tragic, a step out of bounds that leaves her changed, and exiled”).
Transgression, a subject of an entire chapter, poses a liberating escape as well as a risk of punishment. White doesn’t mention Michel Foucault, but perhaps his influence here shadows her writing: “We read to enter a place that is unpoliced and private, to step away from boundaries as we usually experience them. In this way, reading is a form of self-claiming.” Reading therefore asserts our independent selves, but it also removes ourselves “as the property of others. The greater the claims a social system makes on an individual, the graver the transgression will be.” From here it’s a short jump to Jane Austen, Dorothea, and of course Don Quixote. White deepens the book here to integrate first-rate literary analysis with her inspirational instincts. As a result, White does what academic literary critics often won’t do out of fear of being politically problematic: she flat-out gives advice. “Casaubon’s descent into tyranny is a cautionary tale about reading badly. Dorothea’s suffering, and the expansion of her soul it facilitates, are potential effects of reading well.”
Books Promiscuously Read is a short book with long ambitions. Inevitably, some things will be left out. White advocates book surfing, essentially, but that’s not where most people nowadays do their “internal surrender” (“We must surrender while refusing to surrender our right to surrender”). Reading is still a physical activity, to a point. There is the active flipping of pages (or poking at screens), but also the going upstairs to the bookcase, or making the trip to the library or bookstore. Idle flipping through Netflix, or staring fixedly for hours at a time at social media apps, are perhaps the greater threats to our reading time than any of the abstractions dealt thoughtfully with in White’s book. Perhaps a sequel is in order for the unique challenges, liberating and otherwise, offered by film (or music, or non-fiction, or the other arts). White’s focus here is on literary fiction and poetry. And, within these boundaries, this is a necessary and bracing volume that bridges theory, criticism, aesthetics, psychology, and even motivational writing. Books Promiscuously Read sets a high standard for what might become an exciting new genre of literary criticism for educated general readers.
The book does not end like you think it will. It concludes with a completely fresh and bold “modest proposal” that will motivate you to completely realign your relationship to reading and address some of your patronizing stereotypes. It rings true.
So, did I return to The Platypus of Doom? No. But I am happier than I was when I started that I at least gave it a go. Reading promiscuously (a phrase borrowed from John Milton’s “Aereopagitica”) implies a freedom from pointless commitment. But White has inspired me to let my guard down in the future, and to anticipate that readers like me may end up incorporating “something that will change you in ways you don’t expect or control. . . . The pleasure, and the menace, is that we also invite in something wholly not us, that may not let us go.”
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Richardson and Fielding: the Dynamics of a Critical Rivaly, a reception theory-based approach to the early history of the British novel.