Dangerous Me

I will force you to read books, bwah ha ha ha!

Wanted: Jane Austen

As part of my research for The Well-Read Man Project, I am digging through scholarly journal articles that focus on contemporary reading practices. I figured that if I could get some smart people to give up the secrets of reading great books, I wouldn’t need to work so hard. But after reading a handful of articles, I fear that I’m going to need to put in more effort than ever.

Academics in literature programs dispense much ink in trying to discern the reasons why people don’t read as much today. Their goal is to devise strategies that will lead people, especially school kids, into more books. It’s a valiant effort, but in their frenzy to solve possibly unsolvable problems, they think and say some of the strangest things. Let me share just two of gems I found in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

In the October 2008 issue (JAAL Volume 52, Issue 2, Pages 134 to 143), Lisa Simon from New York City College writes “I Wouldn’t Choose It, but I Don’t Regret Reading It,” on how to get students engaged in complex books. Before getting into solutions, Ms. Simon identifies some barriers to reading, including this observation.

The dominance of heterosexuality in Jane Austen’s novels…can trigger resistance in many readers.

(Pause for full effect.) I’m a twenty-first century guy, and I understand the cultural need to get some things out of the proverbial storage closet. But even as a non-academic, I can guarantee you that the dominance of heterosexuality in Pride and Prejudice is not preventing masses of students from opening its pages. Ms. Austen’s books were not only entertaining, but they also shed light on the role of women in pre-Victorian society. Isn’t that enough pushing the envelope for one author?

Or consider the ideas of Meredith Cherland from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. In her article “Harry’s Girls: Harry Potter and the Discourse of Gender,” in the December 2008 issue of this same journal (JAAL Volume 52, Issue 4, Pages 273-282), Ms. Cherland tackles the problem of Humanism, which she generally defines as the system of beliefs stemming from the Enlightenment.

Humanism has become our common sense, characterized by these ideas (and others) that we now accept as natural and normal:

  • There is a stable, unified, coherent, and individual human “self.”
  • Language is a transparent medium, something you can see right through to the preexisting reality it unveils.
  • Reason can provide an objective, reliable, universal foundation of knowledge.
  • Knowledge comes through reason. Reason leads to knowledge and truth.

These are dangerous ideas that present life and the world as simple, as certain, and as structured in inevitable ways.

She goes on to say that humanism’s tendency to categorize things as binaries (such as “male/female,” “rational/irrational,” and so on) inevitably leads to labeling some things as better than others (such as “men are better than women”) and causes us to “oversimplify complicated situations.” Her solution? Fan fiction. Ms. Cherland suggests, as an example, having a reader of the Harry Potter books create a fictional side-story (of what is already fiction) where Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy become friends and lovers. Doing so will erase binaries such as love/hate, male/female, and good/evil, and resolve conflicts in the mind of the reader.

In all fairness, both of these academics eventually offer suggestions on how to get students more involved in their reading materials, but not for the traditional reasons of gaining knowledge and forming character. For scholars like Ms. Cherland and Ms. Simon, books are a scary world of troubling ideas, and they must be tempered by new content and practices that remove any menacing aspects from the written texts. I always thought the whole purpose of reading great books was to expand your understanding of the world with new ideas. There I go being dangerous again.


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