Joe Queenan’s full-throated defense of books in this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” set afloat a reverie during my walk to Mario’s. Queenan supplies an urgency to my quest to read more. I don’t want to just read more; I want to read more stuff with which I can connect. Books that move me, provoke me and enrich me. Infinite Jest passed the test. A Gate at the Stairs, despite its status as a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, did not. I wonder why I failed to connect with an adolescent female coming of age while the powerful forehands of Hal Incandenza somehow managed to keep me enthralled for 1,079 pages (at least, until the end, when I admit to frustration and confusion.)
Yet I still have a desire to re-read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Professor Wayne Booth taught me to love Austen’s rhetoric during my sophomore class with him. Each time I see the book on my bookshelf, it rests in silent rebuke to a vow I made to myself after one of Professor Booth’s lectures. He said that to truly understand any book, one needs to read it at least three times – the first to get an overview of plot and character, the second to understand the author’s rhetorical intent, and the third to integrate the author’s point of view into one’s own world view. Frank McKee, a formidable high school English teacher, lived this idyll, spending each summer at the Jersey shore, tending bar at night and re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses on the beach each day. I promised myself that after the age of 50, I would only re-read those books I had read up until then, to gain wisdom. A year past my self-imposed deadline, I am fractured between my wish to read more and to read more deeply.
Queenan’s essay stands in counterpoint to a recent Five Books interview with Jessica Pressman, on electronic literature. Pressman argues that technology is altering the way we read. Hyperlinks enable us to alter the reading experience so that we are both consuming and creating content. Reading digitally moves from a solitary experience controlled by the author with the consent of the reader, into an interactive experience in which any given author is just a contributor to a collection of texts the reader composes. Queenan’s response:
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.
Queenan captures the essence of what is compelling about reading books. The work required to read books of substance often rewards the reader with intense emotion or self-realization. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run left me gasping for breath twenty years ago when I, a young father, read about Harry Angstrom’s dissolute choices. The contemporaneity of Harry’s and my experience prompted another reading vow, this time to read each Rabbit book when Harry and my ages intersected. Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire elicited such intense emotions that I rose to her defense in one of the few Amazon reviews I have written. The book seems to polarize readers; for some reason, I found it a treasure. Similarly, I cannot imagine how anyone cannot be wracked by sobs as I was during the green mamba scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The scene does not stand on its own. Only a close read up to and through the chapter rewards the reader with the capacity to feel the unimaginable loss.
I cannot imagine that hypertextual reading will provide readers with the same level of emotional depth and understanding. Not because I don’t think it will happen for others, but because I lack the capacity to think beyond a mode of reading that has served up until now. Only recently have I been able to grant myself permission to not finish a book once started. During an NPR book segment, the interviewer asked the guest if she ever failed to finish a book. The interviewee replied almost with scorn. “Of course! Life is too short to stick with a book you don’t connect with.” I felt the weight of hundreds of books lifted off my shoulders. I am not yet comfortable with the idea of hyperlinking from text to text, never completing any of them but creating my own meta-book.
I see faculty wrestling with the same issues. We are pressured, in an effort to deliver lower-cost texts to our students and to respond to a view that the world is moving to a hyperconnected future, to move to electronic platforms. The fear is that in supporting the move to digital delivery, we will only encourage and enable the shortened attention spans and lack of close reading that seems to us, without concrete evidence, to harm our students. Perhaps it is a lack of imagination on our parts. The MacArthur Foundation, for one, is placing big bets on digital platforms as a means to educate and engage students.
I wonder, though, if students today ever feel the joy I felt as a boy during rainy afternoons when my mother’s nagging to go play outside ceased and I could without guilt lie on my bed, lost in my book, transported to other times and other worlds. I wonder if new platforms and modes of reading will deliver the same joys. Our ability to answer this question is critical, for we will only help students to become life-long learners if we can teach them the satisfaction resulting from a transformative engagement with a text that some of us felt when Arthur Dimmesdale tore off his cloak to reveal his own shame. Perhaps the triumph of Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins will move them. Or the sheer terror induced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense.
Thank you, Joe Queenan, for helping me to engage in a Proustian remembrance of books past, and for prompting me to think about the implications for our students. Now, it is time to go back to my book.