Of all the silly things smart people believe are true, my favorite is the idea that the invention of the printing press made books readily and cheaply available and that’s largely why we got widespread literacy. It’s a nice little story—except, that is, if you’re Jewish: As my friend, the novelist Dara Horn, noted in a recent episode of her podcast, Adventures with Dead Jews, the People of the Book got a handle on the learning to read business long before Gutenberg started futzing around with type blocks.
“Poor Jewish kids in 8th-century rural Libya learned how to read,” Horn reminded her listeners.
Poor Jewish kids in 14th-century urban Italy learned how to read. Poor Jewish kids in 12th-century Yemen, in 6th-century Babylonia, in 9th-century Spain, in 13th-century Poland . . . they all learned how to read. . . . It turns out that you can absolutely have a society with mass literacy without advanced technology. Your society just needs to think that reading is important.
This week, alas, we received yet another reminder that our society—or at least its cultural commissars—don’t think all too highly of reading. Sally Rooney, the wildly popular 30-year-old novelist—the Flaubert of the Facebook set—announced that she refused to allow an Israeli publishing house to translate her new novel into Hebrew because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that aims to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
The outrage was as immediate as it was predictable. Without fail, Rooney’s champions applauded her moral courage while her detractors rose to offer an exhaustive—and exhausting—laundry list of objections: If the novelist cares so much for human rights, why not refuse to have her work translated into Chinese, say, or Russian? And by singling out the world’s sole Jewish state for calumny, wasn’t she merely practicing very thinly veiled anti-Semitism?
These questions are as valid as they are pointless, because Rooney’s decision isn’t really about Israel or its policies at all. It’s about the meaning of culture, how it should be produced and consumed, and who and what it should serve. It’s an ancient and thorny debate, one that every evolving belief system eventually has as it struggles to unify its disparate urges. Judaism, for example, gave us the bloody and defining rivalry between two first-century rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. The latter believed religious instruction should only be offered to those worthy of it: the pious, the sons of prominent families, and the wealthy. The former, on the other hand, liked the huddled masses: Let a man sit down, read up, and argue over text, he taught, and even the most hardened criminals may find themselves transformed by God’s word.
Thankfully, Judaism embraced Hillel’s emphatic grace rather than Shammai’s steely snobbery. Not so Rooney and her friends. Our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters believe that belles lettres are the prize you get once you pledge allegiance to the right political beliefs. Art, they argue mirthlessly, isn’t here to inspire or inform you; its sole purpose is to create a hermetically sealed alternate universe in which the cult’s preoccupations are repeated and amplified until they’re so seamlessly internalized that not even imaginary worlds can provide respite from the omnipresent ideology.
Don’t take my word for it; here, in her own words, is Sally Rooney, letting one character in her latest novel indulge in a bit of soul-baring:
I’ve been thinking lately about right-wing politics (haven’t we all), and how it is that conservatism (the social force) came to be associated with rapacious market capitalism. The connection is not obvious, at least to me, since markets preserve nothing, but ingest all aspects of an existing social landscape and excrete them, shorn of meaning and memory, as transactions.
Recreational Marxists of the world, unite!
And if a novelist can’t even permit her own character a moment of reprieve from being a partisan in the war against thought crimes, don’t expect her to be any more merciful with her readers.
Not that Rooney’s would-be readers should feel deprived. If you crave emotionally stunted characters who jut into each other awkwardly, failing to form real and nurturing emotional attachments while hectoring each other with bits from The Communist Manifesto, you can log on to social media any time for an angry fix. Like a true Twitter troll, Rooney performed her bit of virtue-signaling and then quickly blocked readers she feared may not agree. As it turns out, the millennial longlisted for the Man Booker Prize doesn’t understand what books are really for.
Never mind all that. Those of us who think reading is important will continue to look for, and find, authors who seek to engage rather than repel us, and who are bored by the dull hum of petty politics but stirred by the music of human complexity. For as long as there’s literature—the real kind, not ready-for-a-Netflix-adaptation piffles—books will continue to connect us. E. M. Forster, a real writer, understood this well. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height,” he wrote. “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” Amen to that.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
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Photo by Christian Alexander Tietgen via Creative Commons. Image cropped.