You are what you read? Why reading is a fundamental threat to identity

May 2, 2016 | Louise Adams.

In a moving passage of Dickens’ novel, the ill-treated David Copperfield remembers ‘sitting on my bed, reading as if for life’.[1] His words capture an experience of reading that will be familiar to many – one of freedom and fulfilment. By engaging with books we escape our immediate circumstances, broaden our horizons, and discover ourselves more fully.

And yet much darker ideas about reading coexist with this idealised conception. A deep concern over the power of texts looms subtly behind many headlines, whether it’s about education (is neglecting the classics in curricula detrimental to our children?), technology (does digitization undermine good reading practices?), or national security (could textual censorship help prevent radical indoctrination?).

These worries showcase the great irony of reading: that in order to benefit from your reading as an individual you must surrender your individuality, placing yourself and your thoughts under the direction of another. In reading we make ourselves open, we agree to be vulnerable, and thus may succumb unconsciously to manipulation or to harm. In other words, reading threatens identity as much as it nourishes it.

This problem has troubled readers for centuries, and a growing number of scholars are studying its appearance in historical records. The way that reading has been represented within culture – through things as diverse as paintings, philosophy, and teaching aids – testifies to its unique ability to mingle hope and anxiety.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this tension more explicit than in the writing of eighteenth-century Britain. In this period, reading was celebrated from every corner as an essential means of enlightenment and emancipation. Essays, manuals and novels upheld it as the means of social salvation. Through reading, writers proclaimed, individuals could shake off the shackles of prejudice and ignorance, and obtain intellectual freedom.

Yet at the same time, the horrible dangers of reading were expounded upon with equal force. Members of society, commentators claimed, were at risk from reading material: at moral risk from certain kinds of writing (especially novels), intellectual risk from others (including abridgements and anthologies), and political risk from still more (inflammatory pamphlets and propaganda). What was worse, the very way texts were read was understood to threaten these areas, even if their content was commendable. Hasty, distracted or passive reading was a sure route to moral and social depravity. Reading in bed, as opposed to in a library, instantly made the reader more vulnerable to pernicious ideas.

Often these conflicting attitudes could be found in the work of the same writer. Thus whilst William Godwin eulogised reading as the key means of intellectual independence for humanity in his Political Justice, he used reading as an example of ‘the limits of individuality’ in the same volume:

Every man that receives an impression from any external object, has the current of his own thoughts modified by force; […] Every man that reads the composition of another, suffers the succession of his ideas to be in a considerable degree under the direction of his author.[2]

This work particularly grapples with the implications of materialist philosophy for ideas about reading. On the one hand, if the human mind could be reduced simply to a material mechanism, then the positive power of reading was clear – educative circumstances were all-important, so good reading materials would go a long way toward making a good person. On the other hand, however, materialist ideas left very little room for confidence in the choices and judgments of readers. If their minds were simply a collection of other people’s ideas, could they truly be said to have independence at all.

Across the years, many writers have imagined this two-edged nature of reading in a more positive light. It might be inevitable that reading both threatens individuality and enables its formation, but perhaps this irony is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. C. S. Lewis, rather beautifully, described good reading as an act of sacrifice and generosity:

In love we escape from our self into one other. […] Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.[3]

Perhaps all good communication, then, requires making the boundaries of the self porous. Perhaps good reading is about risk-taking, about caring enough for other people to surrender and reassess what we consider most fundamentally our own. And perhaps when reading in this way, we too are ‘reading as if for life’.

About Louise

My research interests concern the activity of reading as a cultural construct – particularly the relationship between literary portrayals of reading and wider social attitudes towards knowledge and mediation. My doctoral project focuses this upon the long eighteenth century and the work of William Godwin (1756-1836).

See my full profile here.

Article edited by Vicki Madden and Tess Goodman.

Works Cited

1. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (London: Penguin Classics, 1996) p. 67.

2. William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, ed. by Mark Philp, The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, vol. 3 (London: Pickering, 1993), p. 452.

3. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) p.138.

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