Why Reading Matters: An Introduction
David Kaufmann for the editorial collective
 
 


R
eading is a remarkably complicated activity. First of all, there is the elegant mental architecture that underlies our ability to recognize marks or pixels as bearers of sound and meaning. Then there are all the different ways in which we read. Think for a moment of some of the practices that we call reading. Think about reading a story to a child or a novel for an English class. Think about reading the manual for your VCR or about reading a recipe. What do you actually do when you consult a guidebook to Rome and how is that different from glancing through an article in Newsweek about healthcare? Do you pay the same kind of attention to a memo from your boss as you might the Constitution of the United States? In each of these instances, the text calls forth from us a different focus, a different intention. If you read the instructions for your VCR as if they were Moby Dick, or Paradise Lost as a guide to gardening, or your boss’s latest pronouncements on corporate policy as if it were the Bill of Rights you would be courting all kinds of disaster. And usually (unless we are joking) we tend to match our attention to the type of text that we are reading. In other words, we learn, through years of practice and example, many ways of reading, each of which is tied to specific contexts and goals.

In this issue, we consider reading in both a narrow and a deceptively broad sense. The articles that follow look at that practice of reaction and interpretation that surrounds what we call, for want of a better term, “literature.” By this last term I mean those works of the imagination, (which do not, by the way, have to be written) which for historical reasons were not created as pure information. These are works we have come to analyze in terms not just of their transmissible content, but also in terms of the way they present themselves (in other words, their form) and the way they make us feel. And because reading in this sense has come to signal complex and often self-reflective acts of interpretation, we have grown accustomed in an academic settings over the past three decades to talking about reading not only poetry and fiction, but also reading movies and reading paintings, as well as, more recently, reading websites and hypertext. As the notion of reading expands, so does the range of “literature” until it seems to encompass a good part of our imaginative lives.

And it is in this context, this sense of reading and of literature that we are called upon to explain why reading matters. As wnds of reading that do not yield immediate or immediately profitable information seem old-fashioned and increasingly suspect. They need to account for themselves and they need to be accounted for. This issue of our journal provides a number of responses—some general and some quite personal—to the question of the legitimacy of “literary” reading. The sad thing is that as Americans, we tend to associate productivity with the burdens of labor. And reading will fail the test here, because literary reading is not particularly burdensome for so many people. Rather, it serves as a source of amusement or interest or even in not so rare cases, liberation. Reading brings into play a number of pleasures that are cognitive, psychological and even somatic. In literary reading we get to play with identities, with words, with possibilities. We get to laugh over jokes that are centuries old and to empathize with people whom we could never even hope to meet. We get to see how the world is and how it might be. Reading seems like too much fun to be important. But given the depth and the permanence of the pleasures and possibilities of reading, we should be bold and argue on behalf of reading. We should not be ashamed to say that reading does not present a diversion from our most serious tasks, which seem increasingly tied to information. Instead, literary reading is an important fulfillment of those tasks. In the end, we signal many activities by that small word, “reading” and we should not be scared to claim that that they all indeed do matter.