While digging through Jodi’s laundry basket of unwanted books, Mikita Brottman’s The Solitary Vice: Against Reading caught my eye because it looked controversial. As a chronic book reader, I was intrigued by Brottman’s search to find out why reading is so great. For some reason, I had expectations of a great philosophical debate concerning reading and its many virtues.
What reading The Solitary Vice gave me instead was an apology for reading books other than literature. As a student of religion and spirituality, I am used to reading the works of apologists, especially ones written by Christians. Like a person defending the benefits and truth behind Christianity, Brottman gave me four chapters of arguments on why reading biographies and memoirs about celebrities, books about true crime, and analytic case studies about psychology are just as valid as reading literature.
Brottman’s reason for writing this book was to combat the notion that reading literature is somehow better than reading other written works. The language used by religious apologists is often strong and sometimes shocking, designed to shake a person up and force them to rationalize that whatever truth they are claiming to have should be accepted.
Here are some examples of the language used in Brottman’s apology:
There are lots of reasons why people believe in books you “ought” to read, but I suspect most of them come down to intellectual insecurity, snobbery, residual class anxieties, egotism, and a kind of superstitious folklore rooted in tradition and nationalism, reinforced by cultural and academic turf wars, and played out in school and college curricula. (pg. 83)
Some “serious” readers, I’ve discovered, will turn up their noses at true crime; they see it as trashy, tabloid pulp, with no appeal for the healthy-minded intellectual. (pg. 162)
So? What’s wrong with reading? you might ask. Nothing, of course. But once you assign an intellectual value to the act, you not only overlook the nature of the text itself, you also make universal and one-dimensional what is essentially a private process of engagement. . . . Perhaps the fear of books expressed by earlier generations was no less a superstition than our faith in them today a faith that draws its power from a toxic brew of magical thinking, narcissism, and nostalgia. (pg. 7)
Brottman rejected reading books for the sake of reading books. She also rejected reading books for reasons other than those defined by the reader. Brottman said, “Don’t give in to your prejudices; don’t read books just because you feel you “ought to,” because they’ll be “good for you”; do it because you can’t help yourself” (pg. 19). The basic argument advanced by Brottman is that one should read (or not read at all) what and how much they want to read and not concern themselves about the opinions of others. Moreover, the types of books one reads should not be an indicator of their intelligence because of the many forms of intelligence that can appear in a person.
I do agree with this as a fundamental rule for living. We should not be judging books and people by their covers. However, we do have preferences and opinions about what books we think are good and bad. Brottman does not talk about this and I think it is important for one to have an opinion and feel okay about expressing that opinion, as long as we do not force that opinion on others in the form of absolute truth.