Why do we read? “General principles!” my dad would say. Can’t argue with that. But over at Erin O’Connor’s Critical Mass, they’re getting a little more specific. Erin and her readers are having a lively discussion about some issues raised in Mark Edmundson’s New York Times Magazine essay from last week, “The Risk of Reading.” Edmundson’s is the latest, and I think the best, of a recent flurry of big-media articles springing from discontent with the more insipid varieties of book boosterism. (Christina Nehring’s NYTBR piece last month was another.) In the process of addressing the issues Edmundson raises–principally, “Why read?”–Erin recalls a great scene from Cynthia Ozick:
I am reminded of a passage from Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers, in which the eponymous heroine dreams about a heaven that consists of an eternity spent reading an unending stack of books while consuming an inexhaustible supply of chocolate. It’s an image of consumption without consequence (Puttermesser’s teeth will never rot, she will never grow fat), cost (in paradise, the books are free, chocolate is free, and there is all the time in the world), or return (Puttermesser never aims to talk about what she reads, or to share her books with others, or to write something herself, or even to stop consuming long enough to digest what she has read). Ozick’s portrait of a reader’s paradise is a picture of indiscriminate gobbling, and as such it is both profoundly anti-social and massively regressive: book as breast. It’s a funny image–but in its sheer extremity it reveals a lot about how readers, and reading, are often regarded in a society that is as wrapped up in the display of work and work-related social performances as ours is.
Erin then raises the following questions for her readers:
How social is reading? Is it an isolating, anti-social activity, or is it, in its quiet way, a profoundly communal act? Is there a value merely in the act of reading, independent of content? If so, how would you describe that value? Why read? Why do you personally read–or, why do you personally not read?
Their answers are illuminating. Hop on over and put your two cents in.