Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: books and reading, nonfiction
on July 6, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
The critic and scholar Heather Cass White offers an exploration of the nature of reading
Heather Cass White's Books Promiscuously Read is about the pleasures of reading and its power in shaping our internal lives. It advocates for a life of constant, disorderly, time-consuming reading, and encourages readers to trust in the value of the exhilaration and fascination such reading entails. Rather than arguing for the moral value of reading or the preeminence of literature as an aesthetic form, Books Promiscuously Read illustrates the irreplaceable experience of the self that reading provides for those inclined to do it.
Through three sections--Play, Transgression, and Insight--which focus on three ways of thinking about reading, Books Promiscuously Read moves among and considers many poems, novels, stories, and works of nonfiction. The prose is shot through with quotations reflecting the way readers think through the words of others.
Books Promiscuously Read is a tribute to the whole lives readers live in their books, and aims to recommit people to those lives. As White writes, "What matters is staying attuned to an ordinary, unflashy, mutely persistent miracle; that all the books to be read, and all the selves to be because we have read them, are still there, still waiting, still undiminished in their power. It is an astonishing joy."
I picked this one up for the title, because honestly, that title feels like a combination of the story of my life and raison d’etre. I’ve always been a reader, and I’ll stop when they pry my last book, whether it’s print or electronic or audio, out of my cold, dead hands or ears.
So I was kind of hoping for the story of a reading life. I was expecting either an exhortation, a manifesto, a kind of “preaching to the choir” – or all of the above.
I think I got everything except the part I was most hoping for, that story of a reading life. Or rather, the story of a particular reading life. There was plenty about why one should have a reading life – no matter how much the author would say that using the word “should” in reference to reading is pretty much the kiss of death when it comes to reading as promiscuously as she advocates.
Or, rather, I’ve frequently found the word “should” in reference to my own reading as almost a guaranteed death knell to my own enjoyment of a book. There have been exceptions, of course. But I generally have to play mental games with myself to make sure I read the books that I’ve obligated myself to in one way or another.
I found the most interesting part of the book to be the chapters about reading as a transgressive act. So many repressive societies, historically and in the present day, our own and elsewhere, attempt to restrict either the ability to read or the availability of reading material as a method of curbing that transgression.
Attempts that always fail, at least in the long run, because the words we read have a life of their own, and are capable of reaching audiences and interpretations that their authors never intended. That’s part of what makes a classic a classic, in that it still has meaning after the era for which it was written and intended.
It’s that thing that gives a reader that shiver up the spine, that frisson of extra-awareness, that tells a reader not just that words have power, but that this particular set of words has the power to move, if not mountains, at least to move us.
I picked this up because the title represents my own life. I read constantly and certainly promiscuously, in search of escape, adventure, identity, experience and every other thing possible to find between pages in a book.
I don’t think this book will convert a non-reader to being a reader, and I don’t think that’s the intent. I think, or perhaps I feel, that the intent is to remove the guilt from reading, and to get people to think of reading as a way of life – or many lives – and not just a secret pleasure that can only be indulged in when all the necessities of life are finished. If they ever are.
Reality Rating B: People who enjoy reading books about books and reading will get something out of the hypotheses and the concluding hopes for readers. Others are unlikely to pick it up in the first place.
I’m left in the place I began, reminding myself of the following quote from George R.R. Martin:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Although I’d prefer a perhaps slightly less pithy but more inclusive phrasing, “A reader lives a thousand lives before they die. The person who never reads lives only one.” Because I’ve seen places and lived lives that would otherwise be impossible, and my life has certainly been the richer for it.