Back to School

A return to reading as a private and a public act

Lauren Finkel (Flickr/-followthemusic-)
Lauren Finkel (Flickr/-followthemusic-)

In the fall of 1978, I entered the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Chicago. I showed up with a suitcase of corduroys and button-downs, an electric typewriter, and six boxes of books. Accreted out of undergraduate surveys and two years of a philology degree at Oxford, their contents ran over the mere six feet of shelving in my dorm room. I stacked the Old English readers by the phone, the fat Norton Anthologies beside the bed, and the collections of Lowell, Hart Crane, and Eliot on top of the toilet tank.

I then roamed the hallways for some human contact. On the floor below, a woman of my own age was unpacking boxes, and I knocked, said hi, and looked on as she carefully arranged her books. She set Jacques Derrida’s Grammatology between Le Roman de la Rose and Jean Froissart. Gérard Genette led off a string of nouveau romanistes, while Roland Barthes’s S/Z leaned against Flaubert. “Some books!” I said (or something similarly witty), and she explained that she was laying out the texts she’d purchased for her Berkeley undergraduate classes, and now hoped to follow up on literary theory and French literature. I sat down and told her how I’d heard Derrida himself lecture at Oxford (eliding how I could not follow anything he’d said in French), how I’d seen the manuscript of the Song of Roland in the Bodleian (completely true), and how I planned to bring together English medieval literature and linguistic theory into a dissertation on debate and dialectic (made up on the spot). I sat there, 23 years old, like some Hyde Park version of Yeats talking to Maude Gonne, and I thought: this is the woman I’ll marry.

This term is my final autumn going back to school. For my students, it is the first one after a year and a half of quarantine and remote teaching. Masked up and vaccinated, they walk the campus gingerly. They move into their dorms with little more than a Fjällräven backpack and an iPhone. No books. I recognize that they will read their assignments on screens and that my antiquated need for hard-copy essays will be fulfilled at the library’s communal printers. But how will they fall in love? There will be no display of personality through shelving. They will never meet over a page, nor share a volume, writing love-notes to each other in the margins.

More than just teaching literature, I have tried to teach that reading has always been about love, whether it happened to be Dante’s Paolo and Francesca tempted by a romance or Saint Augustine turning to his God over the codex of Saint Paul. Little wonder that one of the books I read just before lockdown, Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (2019), confirmed my conviction:

When the first Waldenbooks opened in my hometown in the 1970s, its self-help best sellers urged my parents to schedule date nights. A quarter century later, my generation, too, began to feel guilty about letting chores crowd out deep relationships. But what we lusted for wasn’t a person. Our fantasy was to reconnect with books.

Price returns repeatedly to the romance of reading. She calls herself a “literature lover,” she equates our urge to “love to read” with our need to “read to love,” and she conjures up the erotics of bibliophilia. Love is everywhere in this book, and by no accident. Its title evokes the well-known story collection by Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which has become a template for the ways in which our personal relationships go on in code.

It’s fashionable now to wax nostalgic about books that mattered to us—about how, for people my age, reading was a portal to desire, about how the look, the feel, even the smell of certain volumes could conjure up a memory as vivid as a cookie dipped in tea. The discipline that has come to be known as “book history” or “the history of reading” enjoys such personalized narratives. Francis Spufford, in his memoir The Child That Books Built, shares how “there were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when we were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed.” Alberto Manguel, in his A History of Reading, meditates on the ways certain books came to him in childhood, much like talismans out of a magical realist novel: “Jelly was a mysterious substance which I had never seen, but which I knew about from Enid Blyton’s books.” Scholars such as Heather Jackson and William Sherman have explored the marginalia of famous readers and anonymous students to find evidence for literary understanding. Robert Darnton found the seeds of the French Revolution in a bookseller’s inventory. And Price, in her How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012), recognized that, to a large degree, what we do to books—collect, dog-ear, annotate, cut up, shelve, hide under a bed—is as much a “history of reading” as what we do with books.

Book history has become the story of objects and attitudes. It came about precisely at that moment in the early 2000s when many people came to think that books themselves were history, in both the professional and the colloquial sense of that phrase. The digital platforms of tablet, screen, and iPhone were feared to have irrevocably displaced textual content from physically embodied media. Research in cognitive development was beginning to show that students retained information differently from the screen and page and that taking notes on paper granted a level of recall far different from typing them on a keyboard. Technology was feared as displacing the tutorial.

Even though hard-copy book sales have increased of late, and bookstores reemerged (at least pre-pandemic) as sites of social belonging, many still see the traditional bound volume as the special rather than the norm. I recall someone saying on the radio that, in 20 years, printed books will be thought of as akin to artisanal cheese: something curated, treasured, expensive, and highly wrought, as if the analogy of book to screen were like that of Mount Tamalpais Blue to Kraft.

All of this may be true, but I believe book history has emerged less as a struggle with technology than as a story of our pasts. The history of reading often frames itself as a personal, rather than an institutional, history. We remember when certain books mattered. We chart social change by changes in the library, the bookstore, or the dorm room. As Deidre Lynch argued in her Loving Literature (2015), we have been cultured into choosing books as we choose friends: that the very category of “literature” itself defines “a distinctive, exclusive category of expression” that makes us want to read with special attention. And if we choose our books as we choose our friends, what if we chose our friends as we chose our books: what if our love of others came to mean the love not just of who they are, but what they read?

That is the question I have asked throughout my life and that I’ll ask again. This fall I am teaching the Victorian novel. A hiccup in department scheduling and a colleague’s leave have opened up the course. Untrained in 19th-century history or the theories of prose fiction, I come to these books as a novice. I read Jane Eyre and Great Expectations in high school, and reread them for my Chicago Ph.D. general exam. I still have dreams about how the distinguished critic Wayne C. Booth asked me to compare the different endings of the Dickens and how, miraculously, I could spew the final, published line verbatim (“I saw the shadow of no parting from her”). But now, coming to these books older than the authors were when writing them (I have, by this point, outlived Brontë and Dickens; I’m older than Booth was when he tested me), I open them to find a brilliance and a power resonant with what I’ve always felt.

First day, we began with Jane Eyre and its first line: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” What a sentence, what a claim—as if the nature of the outside world brings us back into dens and day rooms where all there is to do is read. I turn the page:

A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room: I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase; I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.

This is a scene of reading as absorption, a privacy that borders on transgression. How many scenes of reading are such scenes of removal? The young girl takes the curtain, lets the woven fabric protect her. How many times do readers recognize what the philologist in me knows surely: that the ancient wordplay on text and textile comes from the oldest of the Indo-European roots; that acts of weaving words and weaving thread are always interworked; and that when women weave, their stories are of cloth and closeness. Penelope threading and unthreading at her loom. Philomela, her tongue cut out, making a tapestry of violence. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, “knitting her reddish brown hairy stocking.” I’m not sure that my undergraduates would know all of them. But they certainly will know the girl at the beginning of Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time:

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Texts and textiles wrap the girl, too young to love, perhaps, but not too young to feel. L’Engle’s words—tossed, frenzied, lashing, frantically, ripped, raced—take us back to Brontë’s: possessed, mounted. And, further on, the weather on the other side of Jane Eyre’s window: “Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.”

No weather is as frenzied as that in a book. Every time you look at a page, you’re looking at a window into something you can only share in metaphor. I’ll read to my students and show them the canon of young Jane Eyre’s bookshelf: find Pamela, Gulliver’s Travels, Rasselas, A Thousand and One Nights, a history of birds, the Bible, and more. And when the teenage John Reed—mean, vulgar, threatening—comes in, he yells at her: “You have no business to take our books.” I am not saying anything that has not been resaid a hundred times about this novel. But coming to it as a book historian, a chronicler of reading, and a curator of benign tales of graduate school love, I see what matters. What happens when a man enters a woman’s space of reading? Jane Eyre becomes a story of a woman making it her business to take our books: not just to read, but to write the novel that will redefine the literacy of love. And every student in my class—the class is, like all my others, predominantly female—want that reassurance. You have a business with our books. In fact, you have a better business with them than we did. “What were you doing behind the curtain?” asks the rude young boy. And Jane responds, “I was reading.”

There’s nothing so transgressive as reading for pleasure—whether it be in this imagined rural past or in a terrifying urban future. In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith commits the greatest of crimes by buying a notebook and a pen, curtaining himself off from the telescreen, and later on going off to an old, Dickensian part of London to find a curiosity shop.

As Winston wandered towards the table his eye was caught by a round, smooth thing that gleamed softly in the lamplight, and he picked it up.

It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the color and texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone.

“What is it?” said Winston, fascinated.

“That’s coral, that is,” said the old man. “It must have come from the Indian Ocean. They used to kind of embed it in the glass. That wasn’t made less than a hundred years ago. More, by the look of it.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Winston.

“It is a beautiful thing,” said the other appreciatively. “But there’s not many that’d say so nowadays.”

In the totalitarian world of 1984, one of the things that disappears (along with privacy and metaphorical language) is beauty itself. The worst thing you can say, at this moment as well, is that something is beautiful.

Imagine that I walk into my class and put a novel on the table. Some students would identify it by its genre, others by its age, and others still by its political relationship to power and identity. And then I would say, “It’s a beautiful thing.” Would I be laughed at, derided, dismissed? Behind this thought experiment is a highly textured and complex way of addressing the apparent split between appreciation and analysis in current literature teaching. As Lynch and Price and many others now have recognized, the love of books as objects and of reading as experience is central to the making of a literate society. We should not be ashamed of saying that a book is beautiful, or good, or even great.

Marjorie Perloff, now in her vigorous 90th year, has never had resistance to the great. Her new book, Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics (2021), begins by avowing that “reading great poetry is one of the great human pleasures.” And at the heart of that pleasure is the fine-grained attentiveness to detail and difference in a verbal artifact. For Perloff, there are single lines of literature that have an almost incantatory quality, as if just saying and resaying them can ground us in an unsure world. But every time we repeat or reread them, they are different. Perloff’s is micro-formalism, a way of reading and a way of writing about words that sees no detail as without potential meaning. It is as if the reader must see through the convex lens of art to realize that a strange and convoluted object can be beautiful.

Perloff seems to believe, along with Orwell’s shop proprietor, that there’s not many that’d say so nowadays. But there are. Not only Lynch, but Christina Lupton, Merve Emre, Irina Dumitrescu, Anahid Nersessian, and many others, each in their own way, have made the case for a personal, affective relationship to acts of reading and an emotive investment in fictional characters. Literary narratives become the site of locating the self along an arc of temporal development. For Lupton, in particular, the time we take in reading marks out the commitment—a time that, historically, could only come about when labor redefined itself as something to do other than leisure.

Having the time to read is having the time to grow. Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) may be but the most well-known of these biblio-memoirs, but Nersessian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (2020) is the most uncompromising. Rehearsing the sexual dynamics involved in reading and teaching “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Nersessian recalls the high school Latin teacher who propositioned her. She then recounts a malign set of encounters with the teacher, with the school administration, and with her friends. In the end, her point is this: that what we think of as the “trigger” in literature is the way that it forces us to remember events, to make us work through pain, and to make us realize that all acts of reading, criticism, and teaching are exercises of power. Turning to the Ovidian sources of things, especially the Metamorphoses, she writes, eloquently: “A poem about bodies changed is also a poem about what having a body changes. You stop speaking. You sit in the back of the room. You don’t take walks at night. You lose a small but darling planet.”

Back to school, for Anahid Nersessian or Jane Eyre, demands the balance between power and beauty. I’m worried, frankly, about how my students will respond to the abuse (that’s Brontë’s word) throughout the novel. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Refracted through a triggered history, the line voices a choice not shaped by weather. A bookshelf is a life, a set of memories, a row of buttons you can press at any moment. I look back, now embarrassed, on my first day in grad school, blithely walking into a woman’s room and simply saying, “Some books!” and then talking about me.

Going back, live and in person, does many things. It makes me aware, after a year and a half of quarantined reading of critics such as these, that I will have to teach our novels about how bodies change to students who have bodies. I may desire to announce the beautiful, but sometimes I may have to listen when they do not see the coral in a strange and convoluted object. But going back to school also lets my students look out the classroom window. Zoom is binary, it’s off or on. You’re either there, squared off and visible, or you’re not, simply a name against a black background. Live teaching is a fluid spectrum of attentiveness. Sometimes the students will be present, focused on me, on the PowerPoints, or on the page. And other times, they will be wandering, their heads turned to the outside.

This autumn in Southern California has been mild. There has been no frenzied lashing of the wind, no storm-beat shrubs, no chill that needs a curtain or a quilt. Every day offers the possibility of taking a walk. To choose to read here is to choose not because of, but in spite of, what is outside. It is to say, I will look through a page rather than through a window. It is to commit to yourself, but also to those with you.

And when my students ask, as they have done for 40 years, why I became an English professor, I’ll tell them this story. Dear reader, I really did marry her. Our books are different now. We’ll read a Nordic noir together, or a history of libraries. My wife has even restarted Jane Eyre. Her Derrida disappeared long ago in a garage sale. What we talk about when we talk about books are club readings, authors passing through our town whom I will interview, and weekends when we will look forward, once again, to do the crawl of the remaining independent bookstores in San Diego.

I’ll tell my students that I used to think that reading was a private thing, that teaching was about losing yourself with characters who never lived, that it is all a great escape. I tell them now that there is a necessary, public space for books. Every private act, potentially, affects another person. But what I really want to teach them is that it’s okay to say that something is beautiful, or terrifying; that if you take a walk, it should be shaped not by the weather but your heart; that the sweetest rustle of leaves comes not outside the window, but as you flip the page; and that there is no greater act of intimacy than turning to someone close to you to ask, “What are you reading?” and then to listen for the answer.

Listen to our Smarty Pants interview with Leah Price, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Seth Lerer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, where he also served as Dean of Arts and Humanities. His 2008 book, Children’s Literature, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Truman Capote Award for criticism.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up