The Chronicle Review

On Not Reading

Jerome Corgier for The Chronicle Review

September 11, 2016

I refuse to read books. Coming from a critic, this confession sounds both imperious and ignorant, but, truth be told, all of us, especially scholars of literature, refuse to read books every day. I remember someone telling me at a party in graduate school that my adviser — a famous Americanist — had never read Moby-Dick. Was it true? I did not dare ask him. Did the very idea amplify his bad-boy critical aura? Of course. (Recently, I did ask him. "For a while it was true," he said; "and then, forever after, it wasn’t.")

The activity of nonreading is something that scholars rarely discuss. When they — or others whose identities are bound up with books — do so, the discussions tend to have a shamefaced quality. Blame "cultural capital" — the sense of superiority associated with laying claim to books that mark one’s high social status. More entertainingly, blame Humiliation, the delicious game that a diabolical English professor invents in David Lodge’s 1975 academic satire, Changing Places. In a game of Humiliation, players win points for not having read canonical books that everyone else in the game has read. One hapless junior faculty member in the novel wins a departmental round but loses his tenure case. In real life, the game has been most happily played by the tenured professor secure in his reputation. Changing Places had apparently inspired my adviser’s confession to someone at some point, and the information then wound through the gossip mill to reach me, standing around in the mid-1990s with a beer, trying to hide my own growing list of unread books.

Consider, however, the fact that, as Matthew Wilkens points out, in 2011 more than 50,000 new novels were published in the United States alone. "The problem of abundance" is a problem for every person who has an internet connection, and it is a professional problem in every corner of literary study. Nonreading, seen in this light, is not a badge of shame, but the way of the future. Franco Moretti has been making this point for years about the literary production of the 18th and 19th centuries, inspiring a few labs-worth of scholars to turn to machine reading — for example, using algorithms to find patterns in a particular era’s literary works. This is a form of not reading that holds tight to the dream that our literary scholarship should be based on the activity of reading as much as humanly or inhumanly possible.

Nonreading is not a badge of shame, but the way of the future.
Less mechanized solutions have been suggested by Pierre Bayard, the French sociologist of literature. In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007), he suggests we learn about as many books as possible so that we can create a shared literary culture in the face of the modern fact that our individual "libraries," as Bayard calls them, overlap less and less. A general education in literary culture is more efficient than each of us reading yet more books and less coercive than insisting that we need a well-enforced canon to recreate shared culture, while still preserving the centrality of the human reader.

As a culture and as a profession, then, we are daily embracing the decision not to read, even as literary scholars continue to read in every spare moment, even as they worry more and more about how they choose what to read, and even as some of them try to outwit the problem of nonreading with the promise of digitized corpora.

II f one’s scholarly bailiwick is the present and the recent past, the problem of abundance is acute. If one is inclined to turn to machine reading for help, copyright law immediately sets up a roadblock. And the various aids scholars use apart from digital tools to navigate the problem — mainly, a cadre of other scholars with whom one collectively covers the field, and editors at academic presses or curators of archives who have tended the field over time — are largely unavailable. The Restoration-era scholar considering what to read among Alexander Pope’s complete works is aided by generations of readers who have studied these works, written about them, and produced edited collections of them. In contrast, the scholar of contemporary literature is thrown back on the literary press, on trade editors, and on book buyers for retail outlets. While any given reviewer may be an excellent reader, and any book buyer may have excellent taste, the literary market as a whole is vulnerable to forces that have less to do with literary discernment and more to do with money, class, contemporary pressures on journalism, the geography of cities, and the social networks that circumscribe the reach of editorial attention or a bookstore’s clientele.

These forces have a profound effect on what is celebrated and what remains culturally invisible among the masses of books written and published, and they affect the meanings that particular books come to have as they enter the stream of culture. Richard Ohmann’s classic study of the reception of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in Politics of Letters (1987) shows how this worked in the 1950s. Ohmann inventoried the venues in which reviews of the novel appeared, and examined the kinds of interpretations those reviews put forth. He set those readings next to the constellation of advertisements that surrounded the review articles in each publication, tracking the lines of connection between the publishers buying space and the appearance of a review.

That context, Ohmann argued, makes it virtually impossible to see the content of the novel independent from a literary market that celebrated postwar American liberalism. In reviews, Catcher in the Rye was cast as mourning conformity and our compromised liberal self-determination; Salinger’s pungent class critique and any implicit call to think collectively remained submerged as the novel made its way into literary history. That initial angle of entry has had long-lasting effects. The novel survives today on high school and college syllabi, steadily transmitting the individualist message.

Ohmann’s approach is as relevant today as it was in 1987, and as relevant to contemporary publishing as it was to the literary press of the 1950s: The cultural dynamics of race and gender, the networks that grow up from shared schooling, the vagaries of bankruptcies originating well beyond the publishing business, the flow of venture capital, and the history of literature taught in the academy all work to pull some contemporary writing to the surface while other work goes under, never to be seen again.

Trusting the literary press and the mechanisms of the market to curate the books we read and study is to hand over whole regions of literary curiosity and judgment before one even picks up a book. Because more books are published than ever before, thanks to the birth of desktop publishing software in the 1980s, to make reading a genuine choice, or an informed one, requires research well beyond The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, or the display shelves of the major chain bookstores or the "recommended for you" titles on Amazon.

My small act of countercultural scholarly agency has been to refuse to continue reading or assigning the work of David Foster Wallace.
The dream of an informed curation of reading is just that — a dream. Even a scholar dedicated to understanding the geography of contemporary publishing would never be able to survey the options fully enough to make decisions that consistently yield productive subjects of study and that are not simply synonymous with the decisions, values, or accidents of the market.

And yet universities are made to be a haven for study that is precisely not driven by such decisions, values, and accidents. Scholars are supported by nonprofit universities, and given tenure, so that they can pursue knowledge under conditions not entirely driven by the market and their culture’s prevailing norms. If we erect these institutional structures, at great cost, to allow for countercultural thinking, how is the literary scholar to make good on that commitment? What can the scholar of contemporary literature do to preserve, and to be responsible to, the independent mission for which universities exist?

Here is why refusal is so important. Sometimes scholars will need not just to silently make their choices without acknowledging the choices forgone, but to refuse, in a reasoned and deliberate way, to read what the literary press and the literary marketplace put forward as worthy of attention. This requires a distinctly nonscholarly form of reasoning: One must decide, without reading a work, whether it is worth the time to read it or not. And a decision not to read must be defended, and received, on the basis of this different standard of evidence.

Why admit to this unscholarly approach, which seems to run against all our intellectual values — the commitment to open-minded reading and exploration, the commitment to gathering a credible body of evidence before making an argument or a judgment? We need to tolerate this shortfall in method because a scarce resource is at stake: the reader’s time, and, by extension, the attention that could be paid to any number of other books among the throngs that will always remain unread.

If scholars do not resist or at least consider critically the call of the market, a cycle begins that extends the impact of the professional reader’s decision to acquiesce. As professional readers, scholars will often write about what they read, and the time-thrifty ones will invent reasons to write about what they have read, whether or not their reading was carefully chosen in the first place. Professional advancement comes from being part of a critical conversation where others share a given interest and are motived to read new work in the field, so that the literary works that receive reviews or whose authors have become literary celebrities are often those that scholars of contemporary literature take up in their articles. Articles beget other articles; the rising generation of scholars making their way as assistant professors knows that writing about a relatively well-known author or work will make it much easier to get their scholarship published. And so the cycle begins.

Andrew Goldstone, a specialist in 20th-century literature at Rutgers University, has documented this effect by studying thousands of subject headings related to modernism from the MLA International Bibliography. In a talk at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in 2014, he showed how the phenomenon unfolded in Modernism/modernity, a journal founded in part to foster an expanded canon for literary modernism. Using MLAIB subject headings for the 20-year period after the journal’s founding in 1994 to inventory the literary figures contributors wrote about, he found that even the "new" modernist studies was a game of "winner take most."

A handful of major canonical authors — Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Stein, Beckett, etc. — continues to preoccupy the journal’s attention while subjects outside that canon fail to create a similarly shared body of criticism. The top 11 authors cited as subjects claim 41 percent of the articles. Most authors not already canonical appear only once or twice each, never achieving the critical mass of scholarship that motivates further study and writing within the context of scholarly careers, let alone further reading by the general public. Such poorly known and rarely taught works are not reissued as their canonical cousins are — in cute new formats, anniversary editions, or as the object of some fresh backlist marketing effort.

Goldstone’s findings show how this disciplinary formation functions a century or so after these writers were contemporary. If scholars of today’s literature follow the lead of the literary press in deciding what to read, in parsing out their reading hours on the work of the well-promoted literary stars (for the plausibly defensible reason that "everyone is talking about them"), then our students’ students’ students will inherit the sort of narrow archive that still structures modernist studies even in the wake of a field-leading journal’s expansive intentions.

M y small act of countercultural scholarly agency has been to refuse to continue reading or assigning the work of David Foster Wallace. The machine of his celebrity masks, I have argued, the limited benefits of spending the time required to read his work. Our time is better spent elsewhere. I make this assessment given the evidence I have so far accumulated — I have read and taught some of his stories and nonfiction, have read some critical essays on Wallace’s work, and have read D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace — and without feeling professionally obligated to spend a month reading Infinite Jest in order to be absolutely sure I’m right. If I did spend a month reading the book, I would be adding my professional investment to the load of others’ investments, which — if we track it back — are the result of a particular marketing campaign that appealed to a Jurassic vision of literary genius.

The book’s marketers were smart. They knew their audience and what kind of dare would provoke them: Are you smart enough and strong enough — indeed, are you man enough — to read a genius’s thousand-page novel? Of course they said yes. Having committed the time, those initial readers had then to prove, in writing, that they had something equally smart to say about it. And those yeses were the first of many in the self-perpetuating machine of literary celebrity. Before "Wallace studies" could take a hold on my field, it seemed worth raising the question: Why should we turn the podium over to this author among so many others, to invite him to stand at the microphone of literary culture for a thousand pages and more if it’s not pretty clear to a moderately well-informed person that his work is worth our attention?

I use here the metaphor for public attention that the Mexican poet and critic Gabriel Zaid uses in his delightful little book, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (2003). Zaid argues that excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others. The idea rings true when one reads D.T. Max’s account of Wallace’s resistance to his editor’s suggestion that he streamline Infinite Jest: Wallace defended its length and its obscurities by indicating that he expected people to read it twice. If this was not a form of arrogance, I’m not sure what would be.

My friend the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis offers a culinary metaphor: The attention of readers is not, she says, "a boiled egg" but "an omelet." This is a beautiful and generous thought. Treated with skill and respect, the mind of the reader — and the collective of many readers’ minds — can contain multitudes. In the face of a multitude of books curated most often by the profit motive, it is incumbent upon those somewhat protected from market imperatives — that is, scholars paid by universities to spend their time reading and thinking and teaching and writing — to stuff the omelet deliberately. To do that, we will all need to scour the shelves for the most delicious ingredients, and also set some loudly touted ones aside.

Amy Hungerford is a professor of English and dean of the humanities division at Yale University. She is the author, most recently, of  Making Literature Now (Stanford University Press, 2016).