Why Do You Read?
Taking on the literary monuments
By Michael Milburn
Podcast, Vol. 1
The Challenge of Reading
I doubt I’m alone in having welcomed spring 2020’s shelter-in-place order as an opportunity to try a challenging book. By challenging, I mean one that threatens to prove slower or duller than the briskly-paced contemporary novels that usually occupy my free time, or a classic that I’m less eager to read than to have read. The book I chose from my shelves was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I had purchased but never opened for a college course over forty years earlier. Now I resolved to savor it, though for all its psychological complexity and verisimilitude it neither swept me along nor stirred my emotions, and left me impatient for it to end. When it did end, I realized that my interest—from starting it, to sticking with it, to taking pride in completing it—derived mainly from its reputation. When Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the words of his biographer Robert D. Richardson, “opposed the passive ingestion and approval of canonical texts just because they were famous,” he could have been talking about me.
In an interview, the novelist Michael Cunningham describes his reaction to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which, he says, “I’d come to think of as a book I’d spend my entire life intending to read.” He begins it in circumstances similar to mine: “I was alone, last May and June, in a fairly remote place in Portugal, and I realized that if ever there’d be a time and place, this was the time and place.” Motivated by a combination of obligation and curiosity, Cunningham appears to have received only intermittent pleasure. He calls the novel “fabulous and impossible….I adored it on some days and hated it on others. I threw it across the room, twice.” He doesn’t say whether the adoration outweighed the disgust, but sounds disinclined to repeat the experience: “How many of us, in 2020, can devote two months to reading one book every single night, all the more so when it’s a book that can be transcendent and can be exasperating?”
Some readers relish the undertaking. One woman writing in response to Cunningham's interview reported that she had just completed Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past, which she considered “the Mount Everest of 20th-century Western European literature,” adding that “Next, already down from the shelf, is Ulysses. All my strength is being mustered for the journey.” Grim words for a venture as aesthetically intended as a novel, though how many casual readers speak of Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses as anything but tests of ambition and endurance? For Cunningham’s correspondent, they represent masterpieces to conquer. “Reading [Proust] helped me understand something about myself,” she writes. “My bucket list is not places to go nor things to see—my bucket list is books.”
Mine too, though I ask myself why I tolerate exasperating ones with so many enjoyable ones available. Granted, I opened Crime and Punishment with the “pulse beat of expectation” that Emerson describes feeling at the start of a new book, and took comfort that at 430 pages it was considerably shorter than War and Peace or Anna Karenina, both of which I had skimmed for that college course. But I spent most of those pages looking forward to the next novel in my queue—A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovitz, published in 2008. The twenty-five-page free sample I downloaded to my Kindle entertained and absorbed me; the characters were sympathetic and I liked being in their company. When the excerpt abruptly ended (clever Kindle marketers!) I was reluctant to let them go. Having decided to read Crime and Punishment next, however, I made myself wait, though my relief upon putting it down and reluctance to pick it up again were the opposite of how the A Weekend in New York sample affected me. Anyone watching me struggle through Crime and Punishment while visions of A Weekend in New York danced in my head would have asked “Why do this to yourself?”, which I hear as “Why do you read?"
It's not uncommon for me to long for a book (or experience) other than the one I have chosen. Longing comes naturally to me, and is not necessarily, or purely, a miserable state. It manifests itself in my habit of counting pages. No matter how engrossing the writing, I always know when two hundred, then one hundred, then fifty, then twenty-five pages stand between me and the end. I’m always thinking ahead to my next book, as if reaching it will allow me finally to enjoy the pages in front of me. Nor did my impatience with Crime and Punishment disqualify it from my affections. I didn’t hate it or find it without merit; if I had, I’d have given up on it (albeit much sooner if it was a new novel by an unknown author). Rather, it was work—work to pick up, work to read and keep reading—whereas A Weekend in New York promised (and turned out to be) effortless on all those counts. For over five hundred pages I chose work over ease. Usually when I do this the work yields information or enlightenment or allows me to cross another title off my bucket list. These results please me, too, sometimes more than the in-the-moment kind.
Many people associate laborious reading with school and texts assigned primarily for instruction. English teachers acknowledge the coercive nature of their job when they label non-school books “free reading.” An English teacher myself, I try to make the reading for my ninth-grade course feel as close to free as possible, choosing plot-heavy contemporary novels and avoiding ponderous classics, assigning a manageable number of pages each night and allowing students to just read, no underlining, taking notes, or answering questions. I worry that if they find reading to be a chore they won’t do it, or will do it for as long as they have to and then stop. I’m not trying to shield them from difficulty (which they will encounter in high school and college) so much as show them the ease before they encounter the hardship. A teacher who only assigns demanding books on the assumption that students will read more congenial ones on their own forgets that they won’t do so if they don’t know the appeal is there.
A few years ago, my fellow English teachers and I decided to devote half a period a week to free reading. Students were encouraged to bring a book from home (most did not have one and raced to the library) and relax into it while lying on the floor. None of my own teachers had tried to nurture a love of reading, except insofar as they assigned reputable books and explained why they deserved their stature. If this meant defending Julius Caesar or The Scarlet Letter in the face of student boredom, no one (at least in my classes) ever said that literature had to be fun. Thanks to my eclectically read family, I discovered the fun side and always had a book going alongside the assigned ones. For a time in college I rebelled against coercion to the point where I read anything but my homework. Instead of Anna Karenina, I picked up Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River—same length, but more inviting for being voluntary. I looked forward to graduating and being able to read what I wanted when I wanted, which makes my choice of Crime and Punishment over A Weekend in New York all the more perplexing.
In the end, the effort I put into Crime and Punishment paid off. Constantly questioning my reasons for continuing made me more alert to its flaws and virtues. As the implausibilities and slow stretches accumulated, I couldn’t simply reject it as overhyped in the way I would with a new novel; rather, I had to weigh my disappointment against its reputation to the point that I was assessing book, reputation, and response all at the same time. This wasn’t fun, but it was instructive, and when it comes to reading, self-improvement turns out to be a strong incentive for me, even if it entails boredom. Some people would no more force their eyes down a page than I would sit through a song I didn’t like or wear a shoe that hurt. When the novelist Edmund White writes, “As a Midwestern public library intellectual, I read only for self-improvement,” I don’t hear the vow of an ascetic, but the pride of an autodidact.
I don’t mean to categorize books as only hard or easy, edifying or ephemeral, or to imply that the former are always a chore and the latter a joy. I find Virginia Woolf’s novels slow going, but my attention never flags. Conversely, I love the idea of mystery novels—built for speed, grounded in the literal, unambiguous in their resolutions—but too often a contrived plot or colorless prose leaves me unsatisfied. Occasionally, a book combines play and work, or alternates between them: Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory intersperses fast-paced plots about eco-terrorism with dense exposition about the way trees communicate that changed the way I look at forests.
A few months after I finished Crime and Punishment, I came across a New Yorker article by David Denby entitled “The Lockdown Lessons of Crime and Punishment,” in which Denby describes reading the novel for an online course offered by Columbia University. An attempt to view the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of Dostoevsky’s fiction, the article also cast the book and my difficulties with it in a new light. For example, Denby reports that the professor, Nicholas Dames, “wanted us to know that nineteenth-century Petersburg—which Dostoyevsky miraculously rendered both as a real city and as a malevolent fantasy—was an impressive disaster.” I had found this mix of realism and fantasy off-putting, but Dames helped me to see how it allowed Dostoevsky to portray the city where the protagonist committed his crime, and where all but one chapter of the novel takes place, as shaping his behavior.
The implausibility of that crime also frustrated me—the protagonist, Raskolnikov, plans and carries out the murder of an old woman who he believes has offended him, and then impulsively kills a witness. According to Denby, my skepticism about his behavior is not only reasonable, but desirable: “Dostoyevsky doesn’t want the reader to solve the mystery: he makes the crime both overdetermined and incoherently motivated.” The further I read in the article, the more I saw that my preoccupation with the book’s reputation had interfered with my experience of it—rather than react to its setting and plot on their own terms, I worried about not liking it enough. Nowadays nearly all readers approach Crime and Punishment as a fixture of the literary canon. Some, like me, complete it solely for this reason: why else would I have persevered? Had A Week-End in New York given me such trouble I’d have abandoned it without a qualm.
Thanks in part to Denby, I appreciated Crime and Punishment more after finishing it than while reading it. But the issues he mentioned had been on my mind even before I saw his article; apparently, even as I was resisting the book, it was engraving itself into my consciousness. Long after I closed it, both the hallucinatory setting and its counterpart in Raskolnikov’s psychological state haunted me like troubling dreams. Dostoevsky is as concerned with implication as with statement, so that reading his words, especially for the first time, was just a basis for interpretations to come. I made things worse by expecting a conventional thriller with a clear-cut hero, villain, and denouement, only to find villains masquerading as heroes and vice versa, and multiple subplots giving rise to an equal number of ambiguous outcomes. Much of my reflection consisted of rethinking my initial assumptions and impressions.
If Crime and Punishment’s canonical status hadn’t kept me from giving up on it, I’d have missed its positive aftereffects. This wasn’t the first time that overruling my pleasure principle had benefitted me; years of school reading showed me that the best books often pay off after one has finished them. That’s a hard lesson to teach, especially to high school students, who must discover for themselves whether they like to read for resonance or recreation—the hard-won rewards of Crime and Punishment versus the escapism of A Week-End in New York—or both. Of course, one reader’s resonance is another’s recreation and vice versa—one Amazon reviewer praises Crime and Punishment’s “compulsive readability” while another calls A Week-End in New York “resonant and compelling.”
There are reasons for reading other than the way words make us think and feel. So much of my delight comes from discovering, obtaining, holding, and beginning a book that the author’s challenge is as much to sustain this state as to create it. I’m always surprised when an experience that starts so promisingly—with a catchy cover, title, or first page—disappoints, as if authors should hold up their part of the bargain. Some of my motivation has nothing to do with a particular text. My father saw reading as a sacred practice, the supreme intellectual endeavor, and I am driven as much by his example as by books themselves. Add to that the self-worth that reading and having read engender in me, and my sense of the comparative poverty of most other pursuits. and the act of processing printed language begins to look like a single component of a much broader and varied enterprise.
With so many factors influencing us, it would appear that the decision about whether or not to keep reading depends as much on our history with the activity as on the writing itself. Perhaps some people—reviewers, one hopes—succeed in taking each book on its merits, but I can think of few appraisals that start off more subjectively. The older I get, the more baggage I bring. While nothing proclaims a new start like a new book—new to me, but also brand new, unsullied by a friend’s thumbs or library patron’s breakfast—I wonder whether any aspect of this acquaintance comes unburdened by the past. Asked what effect his previous success has on audiences at his stand-up comedy shows, Jerry Seinfeld said that it wins him about ninety seconds of goodwill, after which he’d better start being funny. Dostoyevsky, in contrast, had an entire book to win me over. Reflecting in his journal on general attitudes toward reading, Emerson wrote, “We are too civil to books. For a few golden sentences we read 400 to 500 pages.”
At no point in my struggles with Crime and Punishment did I fault its author, just my own inadequacy. As a former English major and current English teacher vain about my literary sophistication, I’m mortified to agree with this Amazon reviewer:
I just wanted the novel to end. It is rare that I yell out a celebratory "DONE!" to my husband upon finishing a novel—after this one, however, I could not contain my jubilation!....I can see why it is a classic but it is really slow / hard / going.....
I blame some of my impatience on advancing age. Hard books just take too long, especially when one fails to fathom them the first time through, or without the benefit of a guide like Denby’s Professor Dames. Though I have come to appreciate, if not always love, many books by this means, it feels more like school reading than free. “If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem,” the poet William Carlos Williams said. But what if it's a pain before— or even while—it's a pleasure, or never a pleasure at all?
For all of my relief at finishing Crime and Punishment, midway through A Week-End in New York I began to crave another challenge. Eyeing my bucket list‘s daunting choices—The Red and the Black, The Gulag Archipelago, The Man Without Qualities, all the late novels of Henry James—I felt a familiar anticipation, alternating between “bring it on” and “not again.” My willingness to risk exasperation suggests that I’m not ready to give up on the idea that reading can be a worthwhile activity even when it is not a happy one. But I won’t tell that to my students, for whom English class can spark a lifetime of craving or ruin reading for good; I have seen one or two badly chosen or poorly taught books turn a middle schooler into a bibliophobe, and a well-timed gift of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have the opposite effect. For now, downplaying the difficulty feels right. The first lesson that literature has to teach us is to like it.
New Haven, CT, USA
Michael Milburn teaches 9th grade English at the Foote School in New Haven, CT. He has taught previously at the college and middle school levels. His book of essays, Odd Man In, was published by Mid-List Press in 2005, and the most recent of his three books of poetry is Carpe Diem (Word Press, 2021). His essay “What Fun” appeared in Mount Hope Issue 2.