And/Or: The Spectrum of Reading
Mickey’s Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Productions, 1983
by Eric D. Lehman
Recently Berfrois featured Anna Wilson’s excellent essay on “Full-Body Reading” from Aeon, under the heading “Graduate school in literature can ruin your ability to read for pleasure.” In the essay itself, she briefly discusses the campaign against “pleasure reading” by the academy, which only wants “serious reading” in the classroom. Through her appraisals of a medieval mystic and Harry Potter fan fiction, Dr. Wilson found her own way around the problem, and admirably rejected the educational establishment’s point of view, learning not to “divide the personal and the scholarly.”
This problem goes well beyond graduate schools, pervading every aspect of the education system and culture. In junior high school I went through an intense period of reading science fiction and fantasy literature. During this period, I was forcefully discouraged from reading by parents and teachers, because I was not reading the “right” things, and furthermore was not reading them in the “right” way. This “pleasure reading” was not challenging my brain enough, and according to one teacher, was making me “stupid.” The idea that any sort of reading “makes us stupid” may seem laughable, but one that as a college professor I have heard often from colleagues, textbooks, and students who have internalized the idea.
These academics and educators are working with a spectrum of sorts, with pleasure at one end and profit, meaning benefit and usefulness, on the other. Like so:
Books on the pleasure end of the spectrum seem to include any sort of genre literature – crime, romance, graphic novels – while the profit end gets classics like Herman Melville and Shakespeare. Of course, arguments certainly arise as to what belongs where. For example, newspapers give profitable information, but aren’t considered to be “challenging” enough to read. One person might put Ernest Hemingway on the pleasure side for simple sentence structure and approachable style, while another puts him on the profit side due to complex themes and characters. Nevertheless, the ends of the spectrum have a clear negative and positive charge.
Pleasure (-) …………………………………………………………….Profit (+)
Sloth, falsehood, superfluity, simplicity Work, truth, practicality, complexity
All the way back in 1951, John D. Snider’s I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland split reading material into “high caste” as inspiration and “low caste” as amusement. Novelist and textbook author Stephen Minot made a distinction between “simple fiction” and “sophisticated fiction.” Others focus on the “richness” or “paucity” of ideas in the writing.
And more than the material itself gets divided in this way. In their composition textbook Ways of Reading, David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky divide the act of reading into “with the grain” or “against the grain.” That division is repeated in graduate programs and elementary schools throughout the world, though usually with more technical jargon. “Low stakes” and “high stakes” reading is one of the most recent entries. Echoing Dr. Wilson’s problem above, we could also put “pleasure” and “serious” reading at opposite ends of the spectrum, or “body” and “mind,” or “fun” and “critical” reading, the two poles that were described to me in graduate school.
Fun Reading (-) ……………………………………………..……..Critical Reading (+)
Very few people deviate from this utilitarian spectrum, whatever arguments they have with its makeup, terminology, or equilibrium. But thinking about reading as a spectrum, with two ideas at the opposite ends, creates the opposition itself. From Yale’s Michael Warner to those rejecting his “hermeneutics of suspicion” like Anna Wilson, everyone has tacitly accepted the antagonistic nature of these two (or more) types of reading. And who can blame us for falling into the spectrum trap? Much of human language is based on binary relationships, and finding a way around this opposition of ideas is not easy.
There are some who have tried to get around this polarity. One lone voice from my youth was Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay, in which Robert DeYanni stated, “We read stories for pleasure: they entertain us. And we read them for profit; they enlighten us.” The operative word here is “and.” Not “or.” All reading materials entertain and enlighten, without a spectrum of pleasure at one end and profit at the other. All acts of reading are both with and against the grain.
Perhaps it is useful for our understanding and formation of pedagogy to divide these concepts, but it is not useful for our students, and certainly not for promoting the act of reading or the love of books. And that is the real issue here – the binary thinking about both reading and reading material has damaged more than the ability of Dr. Wilson or myself to enjoy a good book. It has damaged the way that reading is taught to children, the curriculum design of countless schools at all levels, and the culture of reading itself. It is a shortsighted attempt by the education system to assert its own value, and a failure of our imagination and tolerance.
Solving the problem is not so easy. To do so, we might have to stop classifying literature by aesthetics or genre, and admit that it all has value. We could then possibly bring the two methods back together, creating a word that incorporates both ends of the spectrum, that gives that all-important “and” real weight and solidity. Perhaps we could call this “new” method “holistic” reading or “complete” reading. Or maybe we could call it (dare we even consider) “reading.”
Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Ways of Reading. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.
Chatman, Seymour. Reading Narrative Fiction. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.
DiYanni, Robert. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. New York: Random House, 1986.
Minot, Stephen. Reading Fiction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Snider, John D. I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland. New Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1951.
Wilson, Anna. “Full Body Reading.” Aeon. November 10, 2016.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his essays, reviews, poems, and stories have been published in dozens of journals and magazines. His dozen books include A History of Connecticut Food, Literary Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut , and Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History, nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity was released by Wesleyan University Press and won the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society of America, and was chosen as one of the American Library Association’s outstanding university press books of the year. 2015 saw the publication of three books: Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London, the story collection The Foundation of Summer, and Connecticut Town Greens: History of the State’s Common Centers. 2016 sees the publication of his novella, Shadows of Paris.