Grayling on Reading (OP)

Although when I started this blog I only transferred a few entries from their old home, I have decided that the time has come to move over everything that I might want to refer back to in the future. The excellence of the WordPress search facility is another compelling reason for doing this, as is the desire to have everything in one place. So the next few entries will all be very out of date.

3rd November 2008

We went to hear A C Grayling at the Birmingham Book Festival on 23rd October; he was giving a talk on Reading. In strong comparison with his talk of 2007 on Liberty I found some of his central contentions this time highly questionable. This is not to say that there was not much fascinating and stimulating material.

Grayling started by claiming that the practise of what he termed ‘private intensive reading’ (for the purpose of this article I will use the acronym PIR for this concept which is central to Grayling’s argument) is both a minority pastime and historically recent. Books in other eras were precious items, as witness a medieval chained library. Grayling postulated that there are 4 elements or aspects of language – Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening. You might be a writer without being a reader at all – Grayling suggested this might have been the case with monastic copyists. Going back to the very first writing, in Ancient Egypt, we find an enormously high value attached to writers/scribes.

Turning to reading Grayling postulated the existence of many types of ‘reading’ – the reading of pictures, of signs, of the weather, of animal tracks; it is necessary to distinguish this from literacy. And the non-existence of anything which might truly be called in however limited a sense a literary culture remains true for an enormous period of human history – say 5000BC to around 16thc (for Western culture anyway). We telescope history.

Gutenberg did lead to a total revolution. The genie was out of the bag and could not be put back despite efforts to do so. Books started to be read – vernacular Bibles and the Classics. Read both individually and in familial/communal groups. The great hero of the Renaissance was Cicero because of his style; Ovid, Catullus, Horace also. The Calvinists wanted pure Latin without the naughty bits so they translated the NT into Ciceronian Latin.

Following Gutenberg people also started to own books and it became possible to ‘read’ a person from their books.

Crucially as books became more numerous there was a shift away from their form (consider the medieval illuminated manuscript) to their content. And by the 18thC the Enlightenment sees the book and the reading of books as a central act. Social readings continued but they tended to be lighter where intensive reading became private and PIR is born. In 18th and 19th centuries the essay and poetry were considered pre-eminent and novels were not encouraged and to some extent denigrated. This may have been in order to preserve reading as an elite activity. Grayling then shifted back and noted that the mid-17thC revolutionaries were literate – they could both read and use their reading.

The second half of the 19thC sees a huge explosion of auto-didacticism because of the expansion of mass literacy; a much, much broader reading class, enormous expansion of libraries and a much greater emphasis on the importance of reading.

Grayling then argued that it is from this historical background that one infers much about the importance of reading and its future. He then started to separate PIR from other types of reading, in particular what he calls ‘passive’ reading where one just lets the book wash over one. In PIR the reading experience is very active, critical. Grayling exemplified from his own experience the case of being a Booker Prize judge. He claimed that ‘passive’ and ‘active (PIR)’ reading are very different. Passive reading is centred around the human need for stories but is different to intensive reading. 120,000 books are published in UK every year but many are discarded. The question of how you read is a question of how much one will get from reading. Grayling then claimed that Trollope is an example of someone who was normally read passively and produced formulaic love stories, but in The Little (sic) House at Allington provoked and upset his readers by not having a happy ending (ie: Lily Dale marrying Johnny Eames).

Grayling argued that it was an imperative we should read intensively ; PIR is essential to the ‘good life’. In a similar way to hear a lecture is passive, to think about it and react is active.

Grayling turned finally to the future of reading and remarked that while what he called the ‘cultural minority’ remains static in percentage terms it is now bigger than ever in human history because of the size of populations. He was therefore confident about the future of culture and reading (he told an amusing story about China, demolishing that wretched and intellectually threadbare argument about ageing audiences; he was in China some 30 years ago at a classical opera and was told by those attending that it was sad that the audience was so old. Then he went back 30 years later and the opera was just as well attended and the audience just the same age – around 60!).

I did miss some of the latter parts of the lecture because I was scribbling my own notes. I raised my hand to protest at the treatment of Trollope but was not called. However a woman did make the point that she found this divide between active and passive rather stark and suggested there might be a continuum.

On reflection I am more and more convinced that Grayling is wrong about this question of PIR as against passive reading. I certainly do not question that such a divide exists, but it can only be located in the mind of the reader not in the particular material or book. Trollope is of course a classic example for me, in that I spend a great deal of time reading him both intensively and actively. Clearly Grayling has not done this; he would not then get the title of the book wrong (it is The Small House at Allington), and he would certainly not reduce Trollope to love stories – his books are about how people should live, about politics and power (he is by far the greatest directly political novelist England has produced), and yes about the relationships between men and women. Of course you could read Trollope passively in merely narrative terms but you can also read him extremely actively and intensively (if anyone wants further proof of this they should see previous blogs here on the Exeter Trollope Conference).

But the argument is much wider than Trollope. Let me take an example of an author I read both actively and passively – Agatha Christie. Of course one can read Christie passively just for pleasure and escape. But one can also close read her and attempt to study her techniques, her attitudes, her ideology and so on (as will be demonstrated in my blog on Alison Light’s writing about Christie if I ever finish it). On the other hand it is quite possible to read, let us say, Homer or Gibbon for their narrative skills and do so in an entirely passive manner.  The source of any distinction between passive and acting reading cannot lie in the material.

However I believe there are considerable further problems and objections. Grayling’s definition of ‘intensive’ seems to an intellectual one; one might almost call it scientific, and one can certainly suggest that it is gendered. A different definition might call attention to the emotional or psychological ‘intensity’ with which we read. For a particular example let us return to his 18th/early19thC period and the issue of the novel. It was often the case that it was male critics who put down female novelists, including criticism of the Gothic genre. But this genre was a vital outlet for women to convey emotional and psychological truths; we should not argue that they were not read intensively merely because they were not read as intellectual essays. Fiction allows for the conveyance of truths which may not be available in other forms and this takes a gendered aspect in a patriarchal society (I am not here arguing from personal experience because the Gothic is one genre I find unreadable but I accept this is because I do not bring the right emotional and psychological equipment. However I can read let us say Tolkien with great emotional intensity to the extent that I weep).

My argument is that there are different ways of reading intensively. The intellectual is certainly one, and one which we should defend, guard, protect and proselytise for. But there is reading with psychological and emotional intensity as well and this is just as valid a form.

Nor, ultimately, am I as critical of ‘passive’ reading as Grayling. When I am depressed I am certainly only capable of passive reading, but I do a great deal of it and it is a source of great solace and comfort. If books have this therapeutic function why should be critical of it?

So overall while I found, as always, much of interest and much to stimulate in Grayling’s talk, I believe his central contention to be fatally flawed.


Ellen Moody left…

Thursday, 6 November 2008 8:37 pm

Very interesting, Nick, and I answered it on list — perhaps at too much length but I thought it had interesting general application.
2. Clare Shepherd left…

Friday, 7 November 2008 2:56 pm

A very interesting item, Nick. I do agree with you that both passive and active reading can be valuable. As a child passive reading was a refuge from my violent and argumentative father. Reading was a great healer then and now. Both kinds of reading are of value , in my opinion.

3. nick hay left…

Saturday, 8 November 2008 9:51 am

Ellen has been good enough to post a link to this on all her lists and to post her insights which I reproduce below….

>>First “the life of reading” has become a popular topic, with people writing books on the history of reading (like the history of night or walking it seems impossible, but there are books on the history of night and walking, the latter of which I’ve read a good one on). To revert to something Clare said, when we have histories of the life of watching movies, we will know movies have arrived as serious matter.

I’ve read two good books on this matter which I recommend to fellow list member: Robert DeMaria’s _Samuel Johnson and the LIfe of Reading_ and Alberto Manguel’s _A History of Reading_. Manguel’s is much more fun, cover a wider range of time and kinds of reading, has lovely illustrations. I believe Leslie Robertson and I discussed this one some time back and there may be postings in the archives of Trollope-l, or ECW or WWTTA. Manguel talks about early styles of reading different kinds of physical texts, and how we grow from reading (that’s a brief summary of a fat book).

DeMaria’s comes closer to Grayling and Nick’s commentary for he defines _types of reading_ by Samuel Johnson and uses these as general types. So we are in a world of books where reading and books are growing cheaper and spreading. DeMaria delineates 4 types of reading, 2 would be private intense reading of Grayling’s defintion: study and perusal. Then there’s mere reading — passive reading. And curious reading, a kind of alertness where you are as it were strolling through, dipping, skimming.

Grayling clearly pulls Trollope out of a hat as “that mindless author” who is a classic. Will we never get past that? I would say Trollope was an active reader and in his books as asides discusses reading as such and even kinds of reading and how people misunderstand and react personally. Most of this is on letters which are all over his novels.

Grayling PIR is what DeMaria means by study: analysis and evaluation somewhere in the mind as you read. Perusal is lighter study. I’d say I tend to peruse books, study but not endlessly analyzing all the time, rather a reactive life through books. (*Maybe that’s why I get so tired at night and can when I’m at my best only do mere reading or passive reading). Last night I skim/read Cato and it corresponds to curious reading; the way I read magazines is curious reading unless the article really grabs me.

I really liked Nick’s reference to gender and his suggestion that as we have gendered books (female gothic, how novels and memoirs by books may be shown to be characteristically different between men and women) so we have gendered reading, different kinds of intense responses, some through emotion — though surely men do this as often as women and women are analytical as often as men. There are certainly books about how women read: Suzanne Juhasz’s _Reading from the Heart_ (about reading romances) and Janice Radway’s _Reading the romance_. Between these two Juhasz’s is superior if you want a real effective account of the experience of reading girl; Radway is a sociological study based on Kinsey-like questions and tests of women readers. Another one I’ve never read but am told is good is _Becoming a Heroine_ by Rachel (?) Brownstein.<<
4. nick hay left…

Saturday, 8 November 2008 9:56 am


I am in total agreement – reading was absolutely vital to me as a child. I used to go to the Library almost very day, get some books out, come home and read them then exchange them the next day. I would read almost anything from Billy Bunter to serious history with a devouring passion. The child’s way of reading is surely yet another ‘way of reading’? Quite extraordinarily intense. And for unhappy children (which I most definitely was) it is a lifeline. To undervalue this type of reading seems yet another error.

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