I lost my taste for rhapsodies to the power of reading—rhapsodies like Teju Cole’s—around the same time I became a halfway competent reader. It was two months into what would become a twelve-month period of unemployment, and I had come to realize that the reading style that got me through college and young adulthood was not suitable for reading several hours at a stretch—and it was desperately important that I be able to read for hours at a stretch, both because I wanted to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to read mountains of books and because I needed something to fill the long, dragging, structureless days. (Television made the time pass, but oh, the self-loathing after!) It took several rather humiliating weeks, and I am not sure I would have seen it through if circumstances hadn’t forced me to, but I gained conscious control over my distractibility, relieved my mental tonus, and became a decent reader.
The better I became at reading, the less I felt like talking about how much reading meant to me, which may be a natural side effect of coming to love something that previously you only wanted to love. I used to do quite a lot of that sort of book bragging, I’m sad to say, and I don’t suppose the victims of my tediousness will be much consoled to know that I believe those years of pretension were a necessary prelude to what followed. It was also around that time that I stopped thinking that whether a person read books was the most important thing about them, or the best indication of whether we would have anything in common or whether I would like them—all of which are things I believed back when reading was more of a tribal affiliation than a passion.
The thesis of Teju Cole’s New Yorker piece is that President Obama has undergone some kind of transformation from “an elegant and literary man” who relaxed with the poetry of Derek Walcott to someone who can order drone strikes. (The title of the piece is “A Reader’s War.”) The assumption here is that Obama was much of a reader in the first place, when really it’s more likely that he’s simply fluent in the language of intellectualism. It’s easy enough to mimic if you spend enough time with the right crowd. The president certainly seems like the sort of person who likes to read, but that’s not the same thing as being a reader. He has made excellent tactical use of the power that dropping semi-obscure book titles can exert—I saw many jaded, pox-on-both-your-parties libertarians swoon when, early in the 2008 campaign, Obama mentioned Hayek in a Time interview—but all that means is that he’s a smart politician.
The evidence Cole puts forward as proof that Obama is, or was, “a reader in chief” is rather flimsy. He says “a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon,’ Robinson’s ‘Gilead,’ and Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is playing the game pretty seriously.” Cole really ought to have learned by now that 20 percent of people who list those three titles among their favorite books are (as he puts it) people “for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life,” and the other 80 percent are faking it.
Frankly this makes me wonder about Teju Cole, since an awareness of this 80 percent is one of the marks of literary maturity. He’s a novelist. Hasn’t he been approached by enough “fellow novelists” to know that nine out of ten are not the kindred spirits they claim to be? Hasn’t he personally wrestled with the temptation to just relax into his reputation as a literary person while letting the actual labor of literariness slide? Doesn’t he realize how many literary-minded people have taken that much, much easier route and never regretted it, or never realized it?
Whenever I read an article about the reading life at a site like the Millions or the Rumpus, I try to assume that what the author has written is the honest truth, though sometimes I end up doubting it. If they say that reading has helped them become better critical thinkers, I say: Okay, then I hope your political views aren’t a carbon copy of every other artsy Brooklynite’s. If they say writing has enhanced their empathy, I want to ask whether they can imagine themselves inside the head of someone who supports traditional marriage, or someone for whom “reading” means James Patterson and management books, or someone who doesn’t read. (Or someone with V.S. Naipaul’s politics, Teju.) You say reading has improved your own prose. Then how come your essay is so clumsily written?
Actually, I retract that last one, not only because it’s snarky but because I’m not sure it’s correct. Many people are at their most inarticulate precisely on the subject closest to their heart. When I was writing my senior thesis on Oscar Wilde, I asked my adviser whether I had to address “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” which I thought was not very Wildean and moreover not very good. He told me I could write about it or not, but that in general I should always pay close attention to little freak essays where an author departs from his usual subject matter and his usual standard of quality, because often it’s a sign that the author is being more honest and more vulnerable than usual.
Wilde really did think of himself as a socialist humanitarian—it was the secret of his private self-image—but when he tried to write about it, he couldn’t get enough distance to be clever about it. He couldn’t even come up with good arguments, maybe because he couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to believe in it. Even a genius like Wilde had to write where his ideas were, not where his heart was. (My adviser had other examples of this anomalous-essay-as-secret-decoder-ring phenomenon. I wish I could remember them.) Maybe overly ingenious testimonies to the importance of reading deserve as much skepticism as overly insistent ones.
The consensus rebuttal to the Teju Cole piece has been that he was wrong to assume that reading makes people more morally sensitive; the Nazis read Goethe, etc. I’m not sure what I think about that. The relationship between reading and conscience is complicated but they have something to do with each other, is my instinct. In any case, the population under examination here is not real lovers of books but vague fans of reading. Being well-read enough to bluff your way into a reputation for bookishness has many benefits—you have something to talk about with your friends, you feel a sense of belonging, often you meet attractive members of the opposite sex—but moral seriousness is not one of them.
See also “Counterfeit Goods,” a review by Helen Andrews of Teju Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief.
Helen Andrews is a columnist for First Things.