31 October, 2018 • • 38.3AcademiaLiteraturePhilosophy

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Imperfect Readers

Milan Terlunen

Andrew Elfenbein
The Gist of Reading



Merve Emre
Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America



John Plotz
Semi-Detached: The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience Since Dickens



As we were applying for university, I remember having frustrating conversations with my more scientifically-minded friends about why anyone would want to continue studying literature (which I was about to do). My friends were happy with the way they already read, they said, and English classes at school had only made reading into a self-conscious exercise that interfered with their easy, enjoyable immersion in the books they liked. Why continue training yourself to read like this? Would you ever be able to read for pleasure again?

At the time I thought they were wrong. Now I think they had a point.

For most of the twentieth century, the study of literature has operated on the assumption that its methods of reading are better than those of ordinary untrained readers, out there in the world. After all, why bother educating people to do something they can already do? (Or more worryingly, to do it worse than they already do…)

I call this an assumption because it has underpinned scholarly thinking without being openly defended. Instead, arguments about how literary scholars should read have tended to attack other scholarly ways of reading. Literary studies have been quite susceptible to bandwagons, with each critical school winning its followers by claiming to read better than its predecessors within the field. New Critics pointed to their heightened attention to language compared to prior belle-lettristic criticism; deconstructionist readers emphasised the radical instability of meaning that others had missed; feminist, queer and postcolonial scholars read “against the grain” to reveal ideologies of gender, sexuality and colonialism at work in all kinds of writing. Each of these could plausibly claim to read better than its rivals.

However, the assumed superiority of any of these critical approaches over how the untrained reader reads has seemed so self-evident as not to need defending. After all, people outside of academia read sporadically and inattentively, they skip- and skim-read as the mood takes them, they read for pleasure, which can seem merely self-indulgent, or for supposedly naive immersion in fictional worlds whose artful construction scholars have so carefully explicated. The typical attitude of scholars has not been one of hostility but rather a serene sense of ordinary readers’ irrelevance. This, in turn, has left people like my friends with a sense that literary scholarship is irrelevant to them.

Within academia, a new round of disputes about how scholars should be reading has broken out. The kinds of reading that used to be “good”—close reading, critical reading, suspicious reading—are now seen as passé and even harmful. In their place, formerly stigmatised practices going under names such as naive reading, “surface” reading (which doesn’t hunt for “deeper” meanings) and un-paranoid reading are now being defended. Whereas the old “critical” ways that academics read were aggressive, hostile to the claims of the work itself and covertly served to demonstrate the (scholarly) reader’s own superior insight, new reading is gentle, responsive to what a work has to say and communitarian in spirit. The founding statement of this movement is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s wonderfully titled essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”. Like many sacred texts, it is more equivocal than some of its devotees have taken it to be, but nonetheless, it has produced a shift in attitude: it made paranoid reading seem embarrassingly and irredeemably 80s—the literary-critical equivalent of shoulder pads and a perm.

While taking up “naïve” reading as the latest marker of critical innovation might seem like a further involution of academic navel-gazing, I’m cautiously optimistic that literary studies might finally find a way to connect with the activities and concerns of ordinary readers like my friends at school. Three recent books show how this might be done without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Andrew Elfenbein’s The Gist of Reading (2018), Merve Emre’s Paraliterary (2017) and John Plotz’s Semi-Detached (2017) offer arguments which are respectively psychological, sociological and aesthetic for attending to the kinds of reading scholars have previously dismissed as beneath them. Each treads a nuanced and sensitive path through this largely uncharted space, allowing their existing concepts to be enriched, challenged and modified by everyday experiences of reading.

“Evolution hard-wired us to do remarkable things, and reading is not one of them. […] Hands and eyes tire quickly, linguistic abilities are easily confused, memories are imperfect, attention drifts from the text at hand, and brains are happy with minimal effort”. Elfenbein starts The Gist of Reading on a note of apparent pessimism in order to show the many ways these inadequacies might be a source of enlightenment rather than despair. Reading for the “gist” would seem to be one of those messy, lazy, imperfect reading habits which scholars train themselves out of. Yet Elfenbein demonstrates how reading for the gist has been central to both literary production and consumption for centuries, as well as implicitly present (but repressed) in scholarly modes of reading.

Elfenbein takes the concept of “gist” not from any previous literary theorists but from psychology. His broader aim is to build bridges between literary scholarship and psychological research into reading. While he’s by no means the first literary critic to engage with contemporary psychology, his approach is distinguished by “argu[ing] that reading literary and non-literary texts have more in common than scholars admit”. Unlike “critics who assume a bubble of aesthetic self-sufficiency”, he aims to show how “literary reading involves a specialized subset of skills used both in reading more generally and in cognition as a whole”.

This rather dry proposition quickly delivers fascinating results. Even the most unconscious, automatic mental activities that happen in the blink of an eye turn out to be directly relevant to such venerable (or hoary) topics as verbal ambiguity (i.e. the fact that words can have multiple meanings) and “flat” vs. “round” characters (i.e. whether a character has the capacity to change). The concept of gist, however, is Elfenbein’s most innovative contribution to current conceptions of literary reading. Unlike the mind’s automatic responses, gist is crucially formed after the person has stopped moving their eyes across the page. It’s at this point that readers form a “drastically reduced, simplified” memory of what they’ve read. Most of the words on the page don’t get stored in the gist; on the other hand, the gist does contain “a reader’s background knowledge, inferences, emotional reactions, autobiographical links, evaluations, and much else”. Unlike in literary scholarship, “in which fidelity to the text is a paramount value”, reading here has only a loose connection to the words on the page, and incorporates many other elements literary scholars would deem illegitimate or irrelevant.

Elfenbein goes on to show how psychological research into “gist reading” helps reveal the relevance of various historical debates to literary reading today. Should reading be easy (as eighteenth-century rhetoricians and early novelists argued) or hard (as Victorian educational theorists and school inspectors argued for children reading the Bible)? Elfenbein reframes this as a question of how best to achieve a highly detailed, i.e. gist-free, long-term memory of a work. In Elfenbein’s account, hard reading was bound up from the seventeenth century with “a cultural fantasy of good reading that refuses the dissolving power of a gist”, which via Ruskin in the nineteenth century and early twentieth-century American educators became the standard for literary reading from high school through to university. This still holds true today: as my school friends and I were arguing, we were also struggling against that same dissolving power by memorising hundreds of bite-sized quotations for our exams.

The development of reading practices in institutions Elfenbein traces connects strongly with Merve Emre’s Paraliterary. Complementary to Elfenbein’s account of how “hard” reading became institutionalised as “good” reading from the nineteenth to early twentieth century, Emre argues that in postwar America “bad” readers were not born but made. Her “bad” readers, however, were not just anyone lacking university-level literary training, but particular groups shaped by highly specific institutions she calls “paraliterary”. These institutions were invested in shaping reading practices without sharing the ideals of university literature departments. At first sight, the list seems surprisingly diverse and unrelated to reading: study abroad programmes at US women’s colleges, the Fulbright Commission, American Express, National Geographic. Yet digging through these institutions’ brochures, minutes, statements of purpose and other documentation, Emre shows their intense—and often unorthodox—concerns with how people read.

To take just the first example, study abroad programmes impressed upon young women that they were “ambassadors” for the US while abroad, and, unlike the growing number of frivolous American tourists stirring up resentment among the locals, these women should win sympathy through “staging scenes of reading”. “There is no better way to gain the respect of foreigners both for yourself and for your country”, the authors of one guide put it, “than to talk about a good book that you know well and about which you are enthusiastic”. Young women were instructed to bring with them a carefully curated selection of American books, to read—publicly—to generate discussions with foreigners and even to lend or give away in order to strengthen these readerly relationships. The women were told not to take high literary classics but non-fiction books and popular novels about which they could “talk” with “enthusiasm”. Evidently the administrators believed these women would evoke more sympathy by expressing their untutored enjoyment than by delivering a virtuosic close reading. (They were probably right.)

While the year abroad programme seemed to decidedly favour unliterary reading, it harboured a further, and more markedly “bad”, reading practice. The young women were encouraged to view their time living abroad as an opportunity for what Emre calls literary “impersonation”. Living in Europe, and particularly in Paris, these college students could live like the heroines of Henry James stories—refined young American women like Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller who travelled to Europe in order to more fully create lives that were works of art. In particular, the students strove to imitate the sophisticated speech of James’s heroines, translating this quality of his writing into ways of aestheticising their own lives.

One obvious way in which this kind of reading might be considered “bad” is that it doesn’t consider James’s novels as a whole: these students neglected the various kinds of sticky end to which James’s heroines came. These were not lives, ultimately, anyone should want to imitate. Yet Elfenbein’s research offers support here: in a sample of around 500 Victorian accounts of reading, he notes the relative unimportance of plot in ordinary readers’ gist memories, whereas memories of characters loom large. This he explains by pointing to how repetition reinforce memories: whereas each plot point occurs only once in the reading experience, major characters repeatedly demonstrate their characteristics. As such, our gist of a novel is likely to contain more richly detailed information about characters than plot. James’s style, embodied in both his narration and his characters’ speech, is a similarly constant presence during reading. We might then see these “bad” readers as simply more honest about what they retained from their reading than literary scholars have been.

More drastically, however, literary scholars could criticise as metaphysically misguided the way the reading practices Emre describes bridged “the ontological divide between James’s fictional characters and his female readers”. Within universities, viewing literature as a guide for real-world action is to be embarrassingly naive about its fictional status. Yet all the paraliterary institutions Emre discusses firmly believed that “reading literature might, quite literally, change the world”. Emre’s institutions in particular were all concerned with the status of America in an international (and often implicitly Cold War) sphere. For these institutions, the capacity of such “bad” reading to blur fantasy and reality made it a potent form of soft power, transforming a naive young woman identifying with a James heroine into an “ambassador” for America.

In the way Emre shows literary texts and real-life contexts blurring together through the act of reading, she offers a sociological counterpart to John Plotz’s aesthetic account in Semi-Detached. Plotz’s focus is on a set of aesthetic experiences he calls “semi-detached”, characterised neither by “complete absorption in an artwork” nor by “critical detachment from it” but by “the odd fact of both states existing simultaneously”. The most straightforward of Plotz’s examples are cases where experiences of semi-detachment are themselves depicted within a novel: the narrator of a George Eliot novel describes resting her elbows on the bridge in her fictional world while also feeling her elbows resting on the armchair in her home; a male Henry James protagonist fantasises about how graciously the woman in front of him will respond when he delivers his beautiful rejection of her overtures—then realises he’s failed to actually listen to her while lost in his thoughts. Such moments of “two-in-one sensation” have a kind of infectious power, making readers experience overtly “an artwork’s capacity to make actuality partially recede”—partially being the operative word.

Reading with such divided attention runs the risk of condemnation from both ordinary and academic readers: it could be viewed as a failure either to maintain critical distance or to let yourself be swept away and immersed in the fiction. Yet it’s also, I’m willing to bet, an experience we’re all familiar with from everyday life. Plotz describes his own sudden recognition that the aforementioned scene from James depicted “a fact of life, not art” while cycling to work and listening to music at the same time, half immersed in an aesthetic experience and half focused on dodging the traffic. Indeed, whether we’re reading for pleasure or study, aren’t we usually somewhere in a grey area between total immersion and total detachment?

This familiar, imperfect way of reading is one that Plotz wants “to explain (rather than [explain] away)”. Through his sensitive description, semi-detachment is shown to be not detrimental, but a desirable feature of works as varied as the ambivalently supernatural short stories of James Hogg, the “partial sociability” people achieve through reading in John Stuart Mill’s political, philosophical and autobiographical writings and the alternative dimensions of space and time which H. G. Wells depicts as lying tantalisingly adjacent to our own world. In addition, Plotz offers counterpoints in visual art such as paintings depicting the hearing of music, or, in film, the way Buster Keaton habitually gets lost in his imagination only to snap “back into sync with a world that has changed while he was off”.

That even ordinary readers oscillate between immersion in a fictional world and awareness of their place outside it is an attractive notion, one which I’d now want to point out to my school friends as an argument for the importance of critical reading. Yes, immersion can feel all-consuming, but even the most immersed reading can be interrupted by our surroundings: a noisy neighbor, a cold draught or the need to turn on a lamp as the daylight dwindles. We’ve all experienced this, but might have viewed it only as a distraction or annoyance. Plotz’s book demonstrates the rich and varied aesthetic effects which artists have discovered within this twilight zone, and how we might similarly use it in our reading approaches .

All three books find fertile ground in the affinities, overlap and movement between ways of reading which are literary and non-literary, absorbed and detached, or simply “good” and “bad”. They are interested in, and at times even admiring of, the ordinary reading practices which academics until recently had considered beneath them, but for all that, they don’t aim to install these practices in place of old academic ways. These books don’t simply want to go back to the 80s, but instead are rocking a digital perm (look it up) and a subtle power shoulder.

From a broader vantage point, the division between scholarly and non-scholarly ways of reading may come to seem like a peculiar quirk of the twentieth century. Writing in 1921, the literary critic Percy Lubbock, a disciple of Henry James’s, worried that a critic’s reading was “perpetually defeated”:

when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty.

A book, for Lubbock, was a vista of occasional sharply-defined peaks rising up from among vaguer shapes and large swathes of impenetrable mist. Fogginess was for Lubbock a cause for despair. Rather than letting ourselves “be lost in” a book, his advice was that “we must hold it away from us, see it all in detachment”.

After lamenting this situation for a century or so, literary scholars are now arriving at a new stage: acceptance. In the twenty-first century, Lubbock’s ideal of reading with scrupulous detachment may come to seem like a vain attempt to suppress what ought to be embraced, and what, in essence, unites us all as readers. Literary scholars may thus come to occupy a new position relative to the wider world: studying the ordinary reading experiences which few can explain but many have felt. But first, scholars will have to give up the complacent sense that they know best how to read. Elfenbein, Emre and Plotz demonstrate that we have plenty more to discover and understand about the foggier aspects of our reading experience.


Milan Terlunen is studying for a PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.