- Reading as Collective Action: Text as Tactics by Nicholas Hengen Fox
by Nicholas Hengen Fox
University of Iowa Press, 2017, 168 pp. $65.00 paper
Nicholas Hengen Fox's Reading as Collective Action is a timely, engaging reevaluation of the valuable role literature can play in spreading justice in American society. This book is really aimed at scholars of literature, and if you, like me, have ever struggled with how literature and literary criticism can promote social justice and sorely needed change in America, you will appreciate Hengen Fox's perspective and the activism he injects into what is often seen as a very passive activity—the private consumption of literature. Hengen Fox's critique of the ultimate value of literary criticism, particularly the act of close reading, and criticism of other seemingly socially redeeming programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and service learning, may raise some scholarly hackles. However, he advances some intriguing points about literary criticism's and other popular group reading activities' inability to move beyond the personal aesthetic experience into public engagement and the community building necessary to really spread social justice.
Enter the concept of tactical reading. According to Hengen Fox, "tactical reading puts language and ideas into action by working to produce immediate material benefits" (52). Essential to the concept of tactical reading is the connection between interpretation of a text's meaning and social practices that can ultimately get people what they need. Also critical is the emphasis on the growing of social/community networks that are required to help people get their needs met. He notes that "tactical readings help people work together while encouraging them to endorse the notion that people need to work together to solve problems" (58). It is not sufficient, he asserts, for a group of people to rally around a text and empathize with the sufferings and plight of those it illustrates. Rather, a text serves as a catalyst for actually acting on that empathy to expand one's own social boundaries and actions to provide for the real people those characters represent.
If the description of tactical reading brings to mind the Joads and their expanding community boundaries and relationships, it should. And it is no wonder a tactical reading of The Grapes of Wrath is one of three case studies Hengen Fox presents to illustrate the nature and potential of tactical readings to harness of the power of the mass appeal of literature to spread social justice. [End Page 74] In his chapter on The Grapes of Wrath, Hengen Fox examines how a resurgence of the book's popularity with the masses after the economic collapse of 2008 functioned to provide for the material needs of people at least on a small scale at a services fair in Jackson, Michigan. While Hengen Fox concedes the impact was less, it was nonetheless worthwhile and certainly outweighed the null social impact of a discussion occurring in a living room book club composed of a very socially, culturally, and racially homogenous group of people.
Interestingly, while Hengen Fox is somewhat critical of traditional literary criticism, he goes on to ground and perhaps legitimize his perspective of tactical reading and social justice in theory in the fashion typical of literary critics. Hengen Fox chooses Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action and deliberative democracy to infuse literary criticism with the practicality of politics and concepts of public engagement. While his incorporation of Habermas is somewhat superficial and appears at the end of the text, the discussion provides a fitting conclusion to the case studies he has presented to show there is power in literature in the hands of the masses, if only people can catalyze what they read and personally experience into community action in the public sphere.
There is no doubt Hengen Fox's perspective is idealistic and it also directly brushes up against the subjective and mostly private experience of art that dominates the post-this and post-that thrust of literary criticism. It also once again brings to the fore age-old questions about the fundamental point...