In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called "Why We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading," Alan Jacobs argues that "’deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit." The inevitable minority status of deep reading "has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea […] that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level."
Mass higher education has artificially propped up reading, in Jacobs’s view, leading many to falsely believe that engaged, long-form reading is something everyone should love. Drawing on a 2005 sociological survey of reading practices, which I discuss at greater length below, Jacobs calls the population of deep readers "the reading class." Our "anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree," he concludes, "arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of ‘the reading class’ beyond what may be its natural limits."
In fact, "the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading–or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books–is largely alien to the history of education." We are deceiving ourselves if we think we can teach students to love reading or for that matter to read more deeply than they would "naturally" do.
Because focusing on print is a cognitively alien (and alienating) activity for children, because an appreciation for long-form reading must be, in the words of Steven Pinker, "bolted on" the student, and because that bolting-on process is so very "painstaking," we should, in Jacobs’s view, "extricate reading from academic expectations." Instead of teaching "[s]low and patient reading[…]"–a pursuit which "properly belongs to our leisure hours"–we would do well to teach high schoolers and undergraduates how to "skim[…] well, and read[…] carefully for information in order to upload content."
In short, mass literary culture is an artificial construction produced in part by an unnatural and inauthentic university system. The real or authentic form of reading happens–definitionally–outside academia, among autodidacts and amateurs. Though couched in a breezy and easygoing tone, Jacobs is making an extraordinarily destructive argument, not only from the perspective of someone who is invested in the flourishing of the academy but also from the perspective of someone who wants to enlarge literary culture. I count myself among both groups.
In an era where universities are seeking new ways to justify slashing and burning the humanities, Jacobs provides fresh ammunition to administrators. Real reading can’t, apparently by definition, happen in the classroom. Real reading happens in the marketplace, among individuals or small private groups of enthusiasts. Why fund literature departments if they, at best, have no effect on literary appreciation or at worst actively inculcate shame and fear in potential readers by making reading a pill?1
To support his arguments, Jacobs cites a great 2005 Annual Review of Sociology article, "Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century," by Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright. In this review of recent approaches to the sociology of reading–and investigations of multiple literacies–Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright show that reading is always the product of collective determinants and institutional mediation, and suggest that reading might indeed become a minority taste in the future.
Contra Jacobs’s claims, however, their discussion of the development of a "reading class" has nothing to do with the "natural" boundaries of the reading public, but is rather about the way different institutional arrangements lead to different reading levels and practices.
They do argue that "historically the era of mass reading, which lasted from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century in northwestern Europe and North America, was the anomaly" and that "[w]e are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class."
But far from being the practice of a tribe of "natural readers," as Jacobs wants to argue, reading always happens in terms of a "social base." Whether a majority or a minority taste, there is little that is "natural" or "unnatural" about what they describe. Formal education is "the main determinant of literary proficiency," but even the isolated reader (or the autodidact Jacobs celebrates) is enmeshed in large and complex social systems of literary framing and pre-digested interpretation. Whatever their motivations or virtues, the self-perpetuating minority of the "reading class" relies as much on this "social base" as mass readers do. The anomalous nature of mass reading is not an argument against it–or for it. It is merely a social fact.
What this means is that Jacobs misunderstands the real implications of his own claims. From a social fact (the unnaturalness of mass long-form reading) he derives what seem to me to be non-sequitur conclusion (the desirability of this decline). As I have argued in a previous post, the unsuitability of our biology to a certain practice is not an argument against that practice. Likewise, the universality of a biological aspect of the human organism is no argument for it. The artificiality, difficulty, and education-dependence of deep reading is not an argument against the humanities but could well be an argument for the humanities. After all, if we value long-form reading–and long-form reading requires intensive training to perform well–we had best invest in institutions whose goal is the inculcation of this skill.
Finally, in a literary-historical register, Jacobs’s arguments seem to call for the development of a research program that could empirically elaborate upon the conclusions of Griswold, McDonnell, and Wright. If, as I suspect, the demand for literature is anything but "natural," but is itself produced institutionally, literary scholars should dedicate themselves to investigating the historical, social, political, and economic production of demand. Post-WWII U.S. literature would be an especially ripe case study for anyone interested in this research program, not only because the institutional forces producing demand are so well documented but because for many of us these forces have had very powerful personal effects on who we are and our relationship to literary art.
1. Some might argue that literature departments ought to be justified without referring to their salubrious effects on reading habits and practices. This is something like Stanley Fish’s argument on the uselessness of the humanities. I won’t address this argument here, but I should say that it’s problematic and probably leaves the humanities on even weaker footing, even if only in the purely cynical terms of the administrative fight to secure funding.