Saturday, May 25, 2013

Are You Reading Properly?

Do you know how to read?  Well of course you do or you wouldn't be reading this, but in his latest book How to Read Literatureprofessor Terry Eagleton argues that we no longer read properly.  As someone who spends a lot of time analysing both form and content and reading deeply, I'm afraid I find it hard to agree. Even at the most cursory level, I seem to have conversations nearly every day with people about books, sometimes in a great deal of depth, and often without advanced planning. Yes, I'm a book reviewer and an author, but the people I talk to often aren't. My experience has been that many people, and not just ex-English majors, do indeed read deeply, thoughtfully and enjoy exploring the meanings of what they're reading.  This is substantiated by the continual increase in online book bloggers, book discussion groups, and book clubs, both in person and virtually. In a ten year study carried out in the UK, Canada and the US, Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo analyse and chart this growth, looking, in particular, at 'shared readings' in Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture.  Of course Eagleton argues beautifully in his usual chipper style about the need to read more slowly, more thoughtfully, and to do more analyses of what we read. I agree wholeheartedly with him on that point. Speed reading and cliff notes just don't cut it for a wonderfully crafted novel or poem, and every reader could benefit from slowing down and taking more time over our books, looking with more care at things like sylistics, form, structure and references. Objectivity in criticism is important, but so is subjectivity.  We read, above all, with love, giving ourselves up to the story, the characters, and the sheer beauty (and sometimes horror) of their transitions. Talking about books in those terms is no less valuable than talking about tone, texture, syntax or structure.  That said, Eagleton's book is great fun in itself, and covers a pretty wide range of literary examples.  I just don't think it helps to be too elitist about reading. What is obvious to me and to Fuller and Sedo (even if it isn't always obvious to Eagleton) is that we're not only reading properly (in our own myriad of perfectly valid ways), we're analysing and discussing books to a greater extent than ever before.

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