Wednesday 25 November 2009

Reading as a political act/The political inefficacy of reading

I've recently tried to push the admittedly narrow limits of my reading by focusing on two (very different) books of non-fiction: Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.

Foer's book is a qualified argument in favour of vegetarianism, the researching and writing of which were inspired by the birth of his son and the suddenly much more important need to know exactly what comprised the food he was buying for his family. In terms of effectiveness (for inspiring people to look into what they put in their mouths and into their families' mouths), Eating Animals might really work for two reasons: First, many, many people know and love Foer's novels (Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and so not only will this book end up on a lot of people's radars the way any number of other similar books simply would not, but he's also working the daytime television circuit pretty well.

Second, as has been pointed out elsewhere, even though Foer is now vegetarian himself, this is really an "outsider" book. Written as a voyage of discovery, it offers nothing that's really new to those of us who have been thinking seriously about this issue for a long time. However, the newness of both Foer's experience and his perspective are potentially quite powerful things, rhetorically, because Eating Animals displays none of the creeping self-righteousness that can too often show up in tomes penned by those who've been veg*n a really long time and can no longer recall how difficult it is to even contemplate changing one's diet in the ways they propose.

Also, because it's written by Jonathan Safran Foer, the writing is excellent and thoughtful in terms of looking at the larger social picture, both of which are also, in my experience, new additions to the bevy of "vegetarian" books out there. (And Foer's the hottest vegetarian out there except, of course, for my husband. And maybe me. And some friends of mine. But I digress.)

Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night is a sort of anthropological history of the library and its cultural, political, and personal significance. It's a love letter, really, to books and to the people who collect them for others' use and to the places in which they are collected. It's also a eulogy of books lost to time, to destruction (intentional and otherwise), and to indifference by our increasingly tech-savvy but distractable 21st-century world.

Like Foer's book, Manguel's is very well-written - and I have to say, the writing of non-fiction has always been a major sticking point for me; so often, in my previous experience, non-fiction writing has treated as something to be used in the most starkly utilitarian ways, not something to be cherished, lingered over, or played with. Manguel's love letter is thus also a love letter to the act of writing itself, even though he claims his focus for reading and a long and varied culture of collecting books.

In spite of the rhapsodies he permits himself, however, Manguel is clear about one thing: reading is a political act, and so therefore is collecting books into libraries, regardless of size. Censorship, he argues at one point is, in a case of rather devastating irony, an inescapable aspect of creating libraries for there's no possible way every book can be included in any one library structure - and those who tried to create one (Babel) are famously known for having destruction rained down upon their heads, at least mythically.

And yet, Manguel sees nothing more dangerous in terms of a culture's awareness of itself as a culture than to allow censorship, to not try to circumvent that necessary censorship as much as possible. Citing a sadly very long list of the ways in which censorship has been enacted on reading throughout our world's history, he reminds us that in our apparently very open-minded and "safe" western world, things haven't changed nearly enough:
In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. "Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated." [From Lawrence Donegan, 'Anger as CIA homes in on new target: library users,' in The Observer (London, 16 March 2003)] Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles. (p. 125)
I would be interested - very interested - to know how often this law has been put into effect in the U.S. - and with what (sorts) of books and what (sorts) of penalties ensuing. Eating Animals may very well end up being one of the books whose readers are investigated, for vegans are considered to be the number one domestic terrorism threat in the U.S.! Eating Animals is not a pro-vegan book; it's a pro-vegetarian book as, I say above, with qualifications - but it does go after big corporations with a lot of governmental power on their side.

And much more importantly, when it comes to book banning and condemning, those doing the banning and condemning don't generally read the books they take aim at. Not a few times in Canadian educational history, in my lifetime, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned from high school curricula by those who've neither read the book nor understand its historical importance - or because school boards have kowtowed to angry parents who've neither read the book nor understand its context.

Thus, simply reading Eating Animals could well constitute a political act. And Foer argues that whether you change your diet after learning what he reveals or not, that too is political - for not doing has inescapable significance. I take his point, but not doing anything generally leads to nothing changing - which is the same, in this case, as not having read the book. So, while I know using the example of one book is not fair, I will nonetheless ask: is reading a political act if the reading effects no change? Or, how many people does a book have to inspire to change or act for the reading of it to be considered a political act worth noting?

And is reading any book or any text really a political act? Manguel discusses how in the American south, many slave owners worked very hard to ensure their slaves didn't learn to read because direct personal access to information and education could incite rebellion; confronted with such an example, it's hard to deny that reading bears some sort of political meaning. But reading a Harlequin romance - or even, as enjoyable and informative as it is, The Library at Night! - doesn't seem to me to have any political implications, regardless of how any given reader or group of readers might respond.

The majority of people I deal with in my store and the majority of readers I know (self included) generally read to relax, to escape, to feel pleasure. If that sort of reading is political, it's only political in the negative sort of way Foer attributes to doing nothing, as I note above - and that's not a political choice that can be measured, for readers who do nothing can on the face of doing nothing be in no way distinguished from those who don't read to begin with, unless by CIA agents with naught to do but trawl library records.

I personally can't conclude that reading is inherently political; when political, reading is contextually so. I do agree with Manguel's assertion that individuals receiving educations which enable them comfortably to read texts penned for adult audiences is of political importance, as is universal access to reading materials of choice. Apart from that, I think political action happens entirely elsewhere and likely doesn't involve a comfy chair, tea, and home-made cookies (my ideal reading set-up).


Heidenkind said...

Well, in some ways I agree with you and other ways I don't. I wouldn't call reading anything a political act in and of itself. But reading is such a personal experience, and I think it scares people--the idea that I can read something and have ideas, emotions, and reactions to it that no one can predict or control. So even though Harlequin romances are just silly fluff reading on their surface, they still represent a certain freedom of mind and independence that undermines the idea that the reader--whoever he/she is--can't think for themselves. I'm not about to espouse that they're great works of literature, but romances HAVE been on the forefront of the fight for civil rights and social equality since, oh, Jane Eyre maybe? Including today when the up-and-coming romance sub-genre is GLBT.

My point is, books represent ideas and free thinking, whether they're "good" books or not. But I do agree with you that Manguel's idea that all reading is political is a stretch. It sounds like there's a strong point to be made in that book, but he went off in the wrong direction and failed to make it effectively.

Bookphilia said...

I can't believe for a moment that reading something like a Harlequin romance constitutes any sort of thinking for oneself. It's porn for housewives, and it's not good or interesting porn.

Also, putting Harlequins and Jane Eyre in the same category of book is like putting me and Michael Jordan into the same category of athlete; it's not a useful or fair comparison.

Heidenkind said...

Are you sure about that? Have you ever read a Harlequin romance novel?

Unknown said...

But even reading porn is a political statement: it challenges the conservative morals driving the country and shows your refusal to conform to gender stereotypes.


Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Yes, I have read many, many Harlequin romances. When I diss things like V.C. Andrews and Harlequin romances, it's not based on a lack of experience with them.

Tony: We must be familiar with very different kinds of porn because the porn I'm familiar with tends to push the notion that women's pleasure is either secondary to or contingent upon men's pleasure. Which is pretty damned conservative.