Only Readers Left in Love? Reading Class in Classing Reading

According to an Elite Daily dating-advice article entitled ‘Why Readers, Scientifically, are the Best People to Fall in Love With’, ‘finding someone who reads is like dating a thousand souls’:

‘It’s gaining the experience they’ve gained from everything they’ve ever read and the wisdom that comes with those experiences. It’s like dating a professor, a romantic and an explorer. If you date someone who reads, then you, too, will live a thousand different lives.’

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One of the cognitive psychology reports loosely cited to bolster this assertion aims to distinguish between the effects of reading fiction and non-fiction on the social empathy and ‘real-world’ capabilities of readers solely of either, whereas the above article – which has had over a million likes and shares – has ditched this distinction (in its obvious presumption that fiction is the only type of book) and claims that ‘better people’ are those that read. Yet, if read closely, the standpoint of the article actually reveals itself as selfishly proclaiming that a better lover for you awaits in the form of the apparently woefully diminishing reader, from whom you’ll be able to absorb all their acquired wisdom, whether you yourself are a reader or not.

What the article and the psychology behind it nonetheless do in common is pathologise reading; that is, make it the underlying cause of certain symptoms, be they ‘positive’ (the claim that social adjustment comes from reading fiction), or ‘negative’ (the claim that reading non-fiction is in fact more likely to lead to social awkwardness), or hyperbolic (the claims of the article concerning readers making the best lovers, even the best people in general). The problem with these claims seems to lie in the causal ordering of the research; in one of the scientific reports, reading is often construed as ‘print-exposure’ to the ‘genres’ of fiction and non-fiction. The research in fact sets out by subtracting readers’ very subjectivity and substituting reader-types (the fiction reader/the non-fiction reader) for types of reading (the agency of selecting a text, of combining it with and setting it off against other texts; practices of literary theory and criticism, and the assumption of these into other disciplines). It also takes no account of types of writing (there appears to be no place for poetry, for example, nor for textual practices that blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, from gonzo journalism to deconstruction) or of the history of literature (the novel, for example, is in fact a relatively novel form of literature; there is no room made for the fact that reading itself, and the reasons for it, might have changed over the course of time, if those reasons have ever been homogeneous, that is).

The question of the research’s gaze is also crucial here, and left out of its rationale: the goal that it and the article set out after, ‘empathy’, is in fact their point of departure; it is not their objective experimental result, but rather the result they have desired. They posit empathy as the best of all possible outcomes of reading, leading to the conclusion in the article that ‘those who read fiction are capable of the most empathy and “theory of mind,” which is the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from their own.’ But this obsession with empathy has particular effects when superimposed upon a particular type of reading, such as Marxism, for example, and its ideological underpinnings begin show through. According to this ‘reading = empathic lovers’ principle it would seem Marxist readers would have to disavow the discourse’s tenets and advocate a ‘love thy exploiter’ policy in accord with their ability to ‘entertain other ideas, without rejecting them and still retain their own’. Otherwise, this principle could only set out to expose Marxism as perverted or propagandist, due to its transgression of the ‘empathic reader-lover’ principle. But, when these foundations are revealed, this might then rather show the ‘empathic reader’ principle’s own position as propaganda.

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Thus, what the scientificity of the psychological research and the hierarchical classifying of the Elite Daily article in fact only achieve is caricaturing readers and reading. Despite their intentions perhaps, the old distinctions between the sciences and the humanities nevertheless are playing themselves out in these theatres of the psychological laboratory and the populist blog. Reading’s here become hijacked as the domain of scientific scrutiny; reading’s function is made out to be the facilitation of love and wellbeing (which seems only a few steps away from it being characterised as ‘overly sensitive’ or aloofly ‘effete’, as humanities departments have so often been regarded by those of the harder sciences), the flipside of which is that its own efficaciousness in terms of social and political impact becomes diminished; and finally – in further banging the nail into this coffin – through this, reading’s place in social discourse is only further dismantled, as state funding and support of the humanities dwindles. We must thus guard against study by reading becoming as Margaret Thatcher once labelled that of ancient Norse literature: ‘a luxury’. Indeed, reading must always remain more than a privilege and amusement of the elite.

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