Yesterday, in his blog Works and Days at PJ Media, the classical historian Victor Davis Hanson asked why anyone should read anymore. He rehearsed several good reasons (reading is mental exercise, it renews the language that social media zaps into an “instant bland hot cereal,” it reverses the intellectual regress that seems to accompany technological progress) before arriving at what strikes me as the soundest reason of all. “[S]peaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization,” Hanson concluded, “but also the keys to self-mastery. . . .” He hurried on to talk about upholding the standards of culture, saying no more about self-mastery. In passing, though, Hanson put his finger on the reason for what Ben Jonson, four centuries ago, called a “multiplicity of reading.” It “maketh a full man,” Jonson said.
That’s not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that reading leads not to self-mastery, but to self-affirmation. Some such view stands behind the nonprofit labors of Reading Is Fundamental, the children’s literacy organization:
Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
What follows from this view is that “nonwhite readers” need to “find their mirrors.” They cannot hope to glimpse themselves and their circumstances in “white” books. Thus the call for “diversity” in literature — different groups require different “mirrors” for self-affirmation.
But what if this is exactly backwards? Hanson thinks so: “In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia,” he observes, “Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond.” Cicero is unlikely, however, to convince those who believe that young readers will only feel “part of the larger human experience” if their own smaller experience is affirmed first.
What if both arguments are wrong? What if both the reader hoping for a common bond and the reader in search of self-affirmation are making the same mistake? The mistake, as the poet and literary scholar J. V. Cunningham said caustically, is for a reader to think that he “can appropriate [a book] as his own.” Cunningham’s ambition as a poet was to disappoint the reader in this expectation:
He wanted him to know that this was his poem, not yours; these were his circumstances, not yours; and these were the structures of thought by which he had penetrated them.
Every written text belongs to its author, not to you. This proposition, I realize, is sadly anachronistic. It sounds like an admonition to thrift and chastity. It paddles against the current of the times. Michel Foucault has taught us, after all, that the author is an impediment to freedom — that he is not really a person at all (who is owed respect), but merely a “certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. . . .” Remove the author, Roland Barthes urges, and you remove all limitations upon the text.
The truth is otherwise. Remove the author and all you do is to remove every restraint upon Narcissistic Reading Disorder. To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? Hanson gives a marvelous account of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer we both admired despite his various contradictions and occasional cruelties: “[H]e achieved what the Roman student of rhetoric, Quintilian, once called variatio, the ability to mix up words and sentences and not bore,” Hanson says. But surely Hitchens’s appeal is more immediate than that. With Hitchens, the challenge is constant. He never lets you get away with a lazy reflection, because he never let himself get away with a lazy reflection. He demands that you think about things his way, and if you find that unpleasant — well, what do you think?
Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. Umberto Eco, the Italian postmodernist thinker and novelist, explains in an interview:
The ethical has to do with human behavior; it’s not necessarily related to good and evil. When I read Madame Bovary I ask myself: what would I do in a similar situation? Would I trust Leon, who tells me that he loves me? . . . If I were Ringo in Stagecoach, would I have escaped with Dallas upon reaching the city, or would I have set out to take revenge on my enemies? This is what ethics is about. . . . Every work of fiction is a story of human conduct, and the reader would have to be a monster in order not to see the deeds which the work presents as possible acts of his own.
If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.