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Mere Reading

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 2, October 1996
pp. 383-397 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0067

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Philosophy and Literature 20.2 (1996) 383-397

I recall reading in college, some half a century ago, that the first Queen Elizabeth once represented herself to her people as "mere English." She meant that she was English pure and simple, nothing but English. I want to set out a way with books, primarily but not only those ranged under "literature," that I think of as mere reading. Neither the phrase "mere reading" or "mere close reading" is new with me, nor is the mode, and I do not imagine myself on a lonely quest for some lost hermeneutic Eden. Children and the literate public merely read all the time. So do scholars liberated from the professional impositions of graduate school; they have achieved what Thomas Mann calls "the second ingenuousness." They have read the articles claiming that all books and all approaches to books are of necessity theoretically or ideologically skewed and that a job of rectification, thorough enough perhaps even to postpone the actual reading indefinitely, is a precondition of liberation from the author's subtle or unconscious agenda. Yet they have liberated themselves from the liberators, well knowing that if it's a gift to be simple, it is also an achievement.

I am, therefore, far from thinking that facing a book simply -- facing it without "confronting" it -- is an obsolescent activity or that either the straight and trustful reading of books or the making of books that present themselves to be so read is in real danger. I no more fear an impending cultural Armageddon than I long for a past interpretational paradise. For one thing, this is a golden age for the English novel, the premier genre of the present. All the assimilated immigrants and quondam colonials, with their delight in the elegancies of mere high English and their loving mastery of its local varieties, are writing their way into the center of English novelistic literature. They seem quite aware of all those "readings"--Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, etc. Nevertheless they write merrily on for an ingenuous yet discerning public.

Consequently, the following baker's dozen of preconditions and precepts are presented not with a sense of fending off impending doom, but for the pleasure of recognition they might give to those who have come to similar conclusions. In these pages I am apt to be preaching to the choir and, truth to tell, I feel no vocation to convert the unbelievers, the more so since I am convinced that it takes all kinds.

1. The First-Person Plural

The coopting "we" is more insidiously imperial than ever was the regal first-person plural. Recall all the sentences in public intellectual speech that tell us what "we" all are thinking or are no longer permitted to think or are now required to think (or do) in matters intellectual in general and in matters interpretational in particular, by reason of our historical situation.

When I read one of these dicta pushing and pulling me into my place in time or society, every aversive fiber tenses and signals "who 'we'?--not me!" For the very thing said in our name to be needful may well be the thing most harmful and the impermissible move the one really required. It seems to me worth considering that in an analysis of "our historical situation" it might be the "our" that is the vitiating flaw.

Precept: Don't say "we" unless you have obtained consent. Try "I" or "some of us." In particular, always qualify announcements of apocalypse so as to leave room for non-participants. This frame of mind is good for turning from sophisticated to mere reading.

2. Critical Superiority

Judges on their benches sit over the sinners arraigned before them, but that the critics in their studies should be above the writers who are their "subject" is plain comical. For one thing, judging is a social necessity, while criticizing is a discretionary activity; some of us could live without it. Some professors make students believe that criticism is work while writing is a self-indulgence that needs to be curbed. In truth, it is the other way around: the critic is parasitic on the writer; if nothing is...

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