- The History of Reading and the Death of the Text
A recent book by Karla F. C. Holloway, African-American professor of English, law, and women’s history at Duke, is in part a scholarly work that analyzes the booklists invariably included in African-American autobiographies. But the subtitle of Bookmarks: Reading in Black and White (2006) is “A Memoir,” and Holloway’s analysis of what reading has meant to writers from Frederick Douglass through Maya Angelou and Henry Louis Gates is interspersed with retrospective vignettes from her own experience of books and reading.
A chilling moment occurs in a passage describing the second of two short conversations between Holloway and her son Bern, when he was a young prisoner in Odom Correctional facility, North Carolina. Bern was never a reader; but when he was incarcerated his mother continued to believe, as she had throughout his childhood, that his salvation (and hers) depended on the increasingly unlikely chance that Bern could somehow find a “sanctuary” in reading (77, 88). Holloway sent many books to her son in prison, using stealth and ingenuity to circumvent the institution’s disciplinary bureaucracy. She recounts the high point of her efforts at the beginning of a chapter concerned mainly with the experience of well-known African Americans, including Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis, who read to good effect while in prison: “I . . . recall the visit during which [Bern] told me he had finally read Ender’s Game, a book I had been urging on him since early adolescence. He said I was right about it being so absorbing that he almost could not put it down once he got into it. I smiled with a satisfaction I rarely had on those visits” (77). Holloway’s delight that Bern finally has read something she [End Page 845] recommended expresses much more than her pleasure in a sudden sense of common ground with him. It reflects her commitment to the ideology of literacy and her belief in its promise of what reading can do. The hope that Bern might somehow still read his way into a better life was powerful for Holloway. It would also remain unfulfilled.
Bern was later shot to death trying to escape, and Holloway’s account of Bern’s relation to reading concludes as follows: “One day, near the end, in a kind of confessional as I see it now, he told me, Mom, you know I never really read that book, Ender’s Game. I couldn’t reply. I was remembering sharing the conversation with him, sharing a knowing smile about how good the book was” (88). Holloway briefly goes on to express her bitterness—her sense of having been “had” by her son (“drawn into participating once again . . . in one of his fantasies or lies” ). But she ends the chapter on another note, citing Bern’s explanation: “I just knew it would make you happy to think I [read the book],” he tells her, “and I wanted so much for you to be happy” (88).
Buried in the middle of her narrative, Holloway’s rendering of this moment complicates a text that is not so much about reading books as about the implications of saying you have done so. The gap between reading and reporting on reading raises questions about evidence which are indispensable for any attempt to grasp what reading means, whether to an individual or a social group. Taken together, Holloway’s two exchanges with Bern reflect tensions that inform the field of reading history today—not only the pitfalls of taking readers’ testimony at face value, but also the complex interplay of personal and cultural history in shaping reader response, and the challenge of generalizing from individual readers’ comments. Reading is personal—Holloway repeatedly uses the word “intimate”—as well as culturally inflected...