Solitary Vice

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The Solitary Vice

daya dissanayake

The literary month is over and we are into the Reading Month. We continue to celebrate a literary month and a reading month, two full months, 61 days, dedicated for reading, even though the reading habit has fast declined over the past few decades. Other countries too celebrate a Reading Month, USA in March, Philippines in November, and in Australia the Family Reading Month falls in May. In many other countries, with a lower literacy rate than ours, the reading habit is still alive and kicking, while some of our academics lament that not only the reading habit, but literature itself is dead, and they keep on flogging the 'dead book'.

Our ancestors listened to stories, poems and religious discourses, which was named the 'Oral culture'. About 2 centuries ago the common man started reading, and around 1800, in Europe, the term bibliomania or the 'Reading Mania' came to be used. It is on record that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had read every book that had ever been published in history by the time he died. Perhaps we have to modify the statement "every book available to him at the time", because he may not have come across all the books from the orient.

Though modern print technology arrived in Europe in 1448, literacy was very low. Only the elite had the ability to read the published books. It was only by about the end of the 17th century that literacy had gone up to over 60 per cent. Then more and more people wanted books to read, and the printers and publishers were ready to supply the demand.

It was about the beginning of the 19th century, that reading came to be considered a mania, in some parts of Europe. In England peddlers roamed around villages selling books for one penny, further encouraging the mania. In addition to romance and history, scientific and philosophic works became popular. The print culture contributed to the French revolution, with the underground literature. Books for children gained ground. These included not only school text-books, but also stories and folk tales, like those of the Grimm Brothers.

Women became avid readers and some of them began to write too. It was claimed that women who spent time reading romantic novels were prone to fanciful imagination. They fell in love with the authors and the characters in the books. They used the term 'reading mania' for those who read what was called 'trash'. With the invention and arrival of the 'idiot box', the reading mania turned to 'watching mania' and creating the 'Aural culture'. Again it is turning into a new reading mania, reading on-line. Here too the accusation of so much 'trash' on the web is a much talked about issue today.

Like in the 19th century, the readers of all the blogs and social media publications are said to be getting stupider, because they are said to be passive readers, just absorbing information without really understanding or grasping what was written. Another new term came into use, "bureaucrats of discourse consumption".

The reading mania was considered a "damaging misuse of an otherwise good thing, a truly great evil which is as contagious as the yellow fever in Philadelphia... It does nothing for the mind or the heart, because reading becomes mechanical...One reads through everything without purpose, enjoys nothing and devours everything; there is no order to it, everything is read lightly and just as lightly forgotten, which is just as useful considering most of what is read"

Prof. Mikita Brottman, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, in her book, 'The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (Counterpoint), says that "reading is a solitary vice, ...not an act of pleasure but a tool of self-exploration, one that allows people to see the world through the eyes of others and lets them travel deep into the darkness of the human condition." Brottman adds, "while illiteracy is just as dangerous as sexual ignorance, in both cases there is a case to be made for moderation". Yet she is not against reading, "It is easy to get into the habit of reading; what is much more difficult is learning to become a conscientious, discerning reader." She wrote this book in 2008.

One hundred and five years before her, in 1903, Edith Wharton had written, in 'The Vice of Reading', "No vices are so hard to eradicate as those which are popularly regarded as virtues. Among these the vice of reading is foremost." She continues, "It is when the mechanical reader, armed with this high conception of his duty, invades the domain of letters -- discusses, criticises, condemns, or, worse still, praises -- that the vice of reading becomes a menace to literature....To read is not a virtue; but to read well is an art...The mechanical reader is a slave of his own book-mark". He cannot remember where he had stopped, "while the born reader is his own book-mark". Wharton compares a mechanical reader to a tourist who drives from one 'sight' to another, without looking at anything that is not set down in the guide book.

Wharton finds the harmfulness of the mechanical reader to be fourfold, first by bringing demand for mediocre writing, facilitating the career of mediocre authors, luring creative talent into mechanical productions. Second by retarding true culture and lessening the possible amount of really abiding work. He confuses moral and intellectual judgements. Fourthly, he produces a creature in his own image - the mechanical critic.

Edith Wharton concludes, "the mechanical reader systematically works against the best in literature."

It could be that what she said applies to literary awards too, all over the world, and the harm done to literature by judges who are really mechanical readers.

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