Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reading As A Subversive Activity

This is not a new idea. We often talk about reading as subversive -- at least, I hope we do, because  encouraging subversive thoughts is practically a job requirement for writers. Mostly what we mean is that what's being read -- books, broadsides, newsletters, blogposts -- contains provocative ideas, notions that challenge the established order and society's comfortable assumptions. But it may be that reading itself is subversive.

Here's a quote from Sven Birkerts in Lapham's Quarterly (Spring 2011): "How familiar is this feeling, this impulse to hide the self away when reading, both because hiding not only intensifies the focus, but keeps the reader out of the the sightlines of those who anoint themselves the guardians and legislators of our moral well-being."

How many of us as children buried ourselves in our favorite books? We ran away to those worlds that were entirely private, entirely our own. Sure, the words and the stories, the characters and landscapes, were penned by someone else. But the internal experience was all our own. Our parents and teachers may have called it escapism. "Get your nose out of that book! Pay attention to real life!" They meant that "real life" was serious and valuable, whereas the intensely personal experience of reading was sure to lead to sloth and ruin.

It seems to me that reading is even more dangerous. When we're immersed in a story (in the "flow," as those who study happiness say), we engage in an activity that inherently defies regimentation. Is there anything more dangerous to the "dark satanic mills" than the autonomous individual imagination, the secret realms of the mind where anything can be dreamt? (And where the arbiters of social class and proper decorum cannot follow.)

And is there any greater crime against the mind of a child than to either deny him this most powerful door to his own direct experience of wonder or to hedge the reading experience with such tedium that he cannot conceive of it being worthwhile?

So that's what popped into my mind. Am I off-base? Being melodramatic and ridiculous? Or not going far enough? What do you think?

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