The Unexpected Professor: an Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber & Faber)

Reading and the Reader by Philip Davis (Oxford University Press)

Why I Read: the Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot by Rebecca Mead (Granta Books)

There is a series of postcards by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte that applies the alarmist tone usually reserved for smoking to scenes of people reading. A sunbathing woman is going purple and the caption, set in black on white with a black border, says: “Reading causes ageing of the skin.” In other scenarios a man ignores the naked woman lying beside him. (“Reading may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”) and a mother pours huge quantities of salt into a meal (“Reading seriously harms you and others around you.”) What makes the cartoons so flat and pointless, apart from Swarte’s winsome draftsmanship, is their apparent belief that the benevolence of reading is a stable fact, ripe for comic inversion, rather than a social attitude that we are free to dispute. It is the same ostensive irony that underpins George Orwell’s exercize in amateur accountancy, “Books v Cigarettes.”

Still, you can see where Swarte’s confusion came from. Reading has the best PR team in the business. Or perhaps it’s just that devoted readers have better access to the language of advocacy and celebration than chain-smokers or, say, power-ballad enthusiasts. Either way, somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading—the ideal diet being Shakespeare and nineteenth century novels, plus the odd modernist—will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. With the foundation of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in 1976, reading became the last thing you can never do too often. Even the much-made argument that works of literature—Northanger AbbeyMadame Bovary—insist on the dangers of literature redounds to literature’s benefit, and provides yet another reason for reading.

But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul. Shakespeare, most canonical of all, became a magnet for 1980s iconoclasts, who disparaged him as an imperial stooge (post-colonial theory), a tool of national power (cultural materialism) and a product of the same social/ideological energies as such putatively non-literary texts as James I’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (new historicism). Conducted for the most part in postgraduate seminar rooms and the pages of academic texts (the collection Political Shakespeare being perhaps the best-known English example), the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision.

At the turn of the 21st century, with the debate dying off and the future uncertain, Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, and Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare’s Language, tried to reassert the old agenda by teaching lessons that had been standard in their youth but had faded amid the chatter.

The project has since split in two, with reading primers teaching us “how” to read and reading memoirs providing testimony as to “why,” both in positive rather than implicitly combative terms. There is no longer any need to write “in defence of” reading, or, if there is, the defence is against forces such as “distraction” and “technology” that are indifferent to reading literature, not actively ranged against it. Even those memoirs that hinge on grisly challenges—a book a day (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) or all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics (The Whole Five Feet)—make no reference to “book addiction” or “hyper-literacy.” If a downside emerges, it does so between the lines.

In the penultimate sentence of his new book, John Carey says that reading “is freedom,” yet he provides more than enough evidence to the contrary. The Unexpected Professor is an autobiography (postwar austerity, grammar school, national service, Oxford, Oxford, Oxford) that doubles as a “selective and opinionated” history of English literature, and a glories-of-reading memoir that doubles as an anti-reading memoir. Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them—typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth—and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?

Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away.” But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library … and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets). Even Wordsworth, who showed that reading can spoil you for experience, is read “as a kind of atonement,” in a “microscopically printed” edition that proves “not exactly an On-First-Looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experience.” Once he had squinted his way through English literature, Carey was free to gorge on European novels, yet even that sounds like a mixed experience. Dostoevsky he found “hard going” and though there were other writers he enjoyed a good deal more—Zola, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann—he still “forced myself to make notes on the endpapers.” If there’s any enlivening going on, it’s not being enacted on life by literature but the other way around: playing cricket at other schools “made me understand better that bit in the Book of Numbers where the Israelites send out spies to size up the opposition …”

In What Good Are the Arts?, Carey wrote that the non-literary arts are “locked in inarticulacy.” But literature, in his version, is locked in articulacy, forever making pronouncements and cases and claims. His lifetime of reading, as recounted in this book, has given him nothing, other than the occasional ringing phrase, that he could not have found in some form of pamphlet. In Carey’s account, reading provides an opportunity to engage with writers who share your convictions and to reject the ones who don’t: Milton’s anti-royalism “put me on his side,” “what I liked most fiercely was Jonson’s exposure of rampaging luxury,” “What The Faerie Queene does is mythicize political power, attributing supernatural status to a dictatorial regime, and this makes it, at heart, crass and false.” A telling example of Carey’s picture of literature-as-logic comes when he quotes a well-known passage from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, a reflection on “that element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Although this is the passage Carey uses to support his view of Eliot as “the most intelligent of English novelists,” all he says is that she “is unusual in using poetry in the service of thinking … The tenderness of the heartbeat and the shock of the roar would be marvellous simply as a poetic moment. But it is also part of an argument.”

It comes down to a vision of language and how it relates to ideas. Carey writes that D. H. Lawrence “tries to make us see that, if he could, he’d communicate in some other way, freed from the limitations of thought.” But for Philip Davis, in his treatise-like Reading and the Reader, literature allows just such freedom. According to Davis, Eliot is not putting poetry to the service of “thinking,” in Carey’s op-ed sense of the word, but doing the kind of not-quite-thinking enabled by literary language. “Try counting the thoughts in a powerful paragraph in a realist novel,” he writes, after quoting the same passage from Middlemarch: “They are no longer separate units.” Earlier in the book he asserts that, “at its deepest,” an idea possesses more than “just a statable content.”

Carey is blithely confident about the meaning of literary texts but in the past has dismissed efforts to bring aesthetic response into the realm of scientific knowledge. Davis, by contrast, surrenders to literature’s indeterminacy but believes that its impact shows up on a brain scan. He quotes the example of cognitive scientists, his collaborators at the centre for reading research that he runs at the University of Liverpool, who have demonstrated “how a dramatically compressed Shakespearean coinage such as ‘this old man godded me’ excites the brain in a way that ‘this old man deified me’ … does not.” Davis claims that science shows “how” a Shakespearean coinage does this—but how literature achieves the effect is exactly what resists not just scientific decoding, but verbal description. “I cannot just talk about reading,” he writes, “when that is precisely not what I shall claim to be a literary way of thinking” (as if a vet used only man-made tools).

One result of Davis’s aversion to the general is a certain overexuberance with regard to quotations. He is constantly offering “a different instance.” When he writes “I can think of a hundred examples …” you are justified in fearing he will list them. Shakespeare is likened to “existential physics” and “process philosophy,” and a Shakespearean allusion renders a nonsensical proposition more nonsensical still: “In the readiness of all, the words themselves seem ready when they do come.” Equally forbidding though no more instructive is the sentence that begins: “It is fashionable to talk, after Csikszentmihalyi, of being ‘in the flow’ …” Though Davis has none of Carey’s semi-conscious misgivings about reading, he unwittingly exposes one of its greatest dangers. Biron, attacking study at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost, claims that “light seeking light doth light of light beguile” (in which “light” means respectively the mind, enlightenment, sight and eyes). It might be said that Davis has read too much to write a readable book about reading.

However, Davis’s idea of what literature uniquely offers to the reader is a powerful one, and is shared to some extent by Wendy Lesser, the essayist and literary editor, in her warmer but no less erudite or sophisticated Why I Read, a tribute to what she calls “the serious pleasure of books.” Just as Davis likes writing in which language is used “as a sign of approximation to point to more than itself,” so Lesser admires writers who meet our desire for order “only halfway” (Eça de Queiroz) or give us “only a small part of what is really there” (Penelope Fitzgerald). But Lesser differs from Davis and also from Carey in taking a degree of responsibility: literature is grounded in the capricious reader, not in the permanent present of the text. Carey first read War and Peace in the 1960s but if his feelings about it have changed, he doesn’t tell us, whereas Lesser explains how it overtook Anna Karenina in her affections. And the reader’s shimmying perspective—the reader as human being—is treated as a topic in its own right by the journalist Rebecca Mead in The Road to Middlemarch, in which she traces how a novel that once gratified her teenage “aspirations to maturity and learnedness” has become “a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.”

Lesser and Mead treat the reader to a more attractive vision of reading, no less valuable for being far less dutiful, no less “salutary” for accommodating the kinds of pleasures that Lesser describes as “cellulose-based.” Carey’s distinctions between learning and having fun, between life and literature, are cleanly resolved. Just as reading the classics is not slog-work, so the library is not the unreal or anti-real world. “The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.” Without making the connection, she promotes a similarly unhermetic vision of her engagement with literature, which is not, she writes, just “a form of escapism” but a first-hand mode of existence—as Dickens more than implied when he wrote that reading Eliot’s Adam Bede had taken its place “among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.” When you are “grasped” by a book, Mead argues, “reading … feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.” And you can do it while you smoke.

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