The experience of reading, like any intimately subjective experience, is a challenge to fathom, perhaps as tricky for us as it was for Augustine, staring in wonder at his Milanese mentor Ambrose seeming to read without speaking the text aloud. What actually occurs in a reading mind? What goes on in that spooky, liminal interior? Is it a transaction? A kind of confrontation? Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life by Heather Cass White, University of Alabama professor and editor of the poet Marianne Moore, offers us less a bromide on the pleasures of reading and more an existential dive into the word-saturated brain. Her rewarding book pokes and probes our reading consciousness in order to overturn the nature of textual engagement, like stirring the ocean floor to find the strange, ghostly invertebrates living in its depths.
The title, potentially enflaming as it may be, is taken from a line from John Milton’s less-than-erotic prose polemic “Areopagitica”—“promiscuously” having the seventeenth-century denotation of “random” or “unsystematic.” This is the kind of “free reading” Cass White believes in: a reading blissfully untethered to purpose or plan. “Reading is an activity,” she writes, “that takes place in D.W. Winnicott’s ‘potential space,’ a region neither inside nor outside the self, but a paradoxical place that is both. It is an adult form of the dreamy, abstracted play of children…” On one hand, we have the world of hard, objective reality, the almost entombed environment of the overfamiliar; on the other, its opposite, the land of literature, gridded throughout by our neural pathways, leading us to ever-fresh arenas of transcendence and self-determination.
On the age-old question of whether or not reading promises us a better character or even a better world, Cass White insists that reading, in and of itself, “promises nothing” and is “not a virtue.” It may bestow the benefits of “a heightened sense of empathy, an alertness to logic and nuance, and a lengthened attention span.” Certainly, it is self-determining and, more to the cognitive point for the author, an exercise in immersive concord. Hearkening back to her earlier idea concerning “play,” she insists that, “[a]llowing the words of another to flow through the mind is a way of playing make-believe, not simply that what the words say is true, but that the mind behind them is true, that are minds besides are own, with which we can play at merging and harmonizing.”
Reading, at its pragmatic base, stands as a fundamental nuisance to power. “Radically private,” it is a singular mystery bereft of guarantees, boundaries, and knowable consequences, and as such a powerful block against those who would dominate us. As she puts it, “Free minds require and shape free bodies, and vice versa; any social system with an interest in keeping bodies unfree is well advised to guard literacy carefully.” One immediately thinks of the selfless professors of the wood in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: the “Book People” who in their dystopian world commit texts to memory in order to preserve them for future generations. The black and white of the page burns in bonfires, but literature rests securely, momentarily safe from the machinations of an intellect-censoring, totalitarian directive.
Reading, therefore, is a transgressive act, a wholly personal stab of insubordination, yet one that depends upon a willing “other,” i.e., the writer. Cass White fastens this neat paradox upon the linchpin of multi-consciousness, “reading is a form of self-possession that enmeshes us with others as subjects,” and then for the final thrust quotes historian James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, “[t]he discovery that you are the unrepeatable center of your own vision is simultaneous with the discovery that I am the center of my own.” A further paradox emerges when we realize that the act itself cannot be revolutionarily fiery as it also cannot be entirely independent, requiring instead a placid submission of self—in this way reading is “a voluntary loss of control, a chosen relinquishment of power.” An offering of self to commune with self. A provoking of power via an almost Gandhian civil disobedience.
When Cass White finishes her list of “Propositions” as to what reading is and is not (Part I of her book), she embarks on a tripartite journey through the act via the notions of ‘“play,”’ ‘“transgression,”’ and “‘insight.”’ And it’s here where the student of literature might come in contact with matter more pertinent, away from the psycho-social or borderline ethical, say. Readings of Cervantes and Eliot rub shoulders with readings of Stevens, DeLillo, and Joy Williams, inter alia, to deepen and build upon her earlier ideas. Don Quixote’s adventures, his blithe wavings away of prosaic reality, are representative of “the heart of reading,” for example:
Quixote’s questing is the manifestation of an inner game, ardently played, which calls on all of him, aggression and cruelty included. There is no prize in the game except its continuance, no advancement or gain beyond “the passage of the mind from one thought to the next, and its ever deeper immersion into the same thought” (quote from Roberto Calasso’s Ardor).
While Quixote’s book-saturated life provides both readers and him, a man, with a quirky, humorous dive into the heroic ideal, the suffering Dorothea of Middlemarch, a woman, is presented with a clearer understanding of the social boundaries beyond which she may not pass, as she trespasses on “the masculine territory of literacy.” Casaubon desires to replace the “gods” of his wife’s judgment, formed by her great passion for reading, with his own. His tyranny becomes Dorothea’s punishment for her transgression of accepted norms. As Cass White puts it: “Her fall into self-knowledge is deep and bruising, but it is also […] fortunate in its effects on the woman she becomes when she once again stands up.” And, as for “insight,” Cass White helps us to understand via Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead, its profound gift, given to us through a combination of our lifetime reading and the text itself:
Reception is insight’s watchword, its sacred attitude, its ceaseless prayer position […] An attitude of reception involves above all a rootedness is self strong enough to tolerate the giving up of self […] Alert, relaxed, keen, and unguarded, the reading self easily occupies and otherwise elusive and fleeting state of awareness […] In that fluid medium insight is free to gather and effloresce.
To metacognitively read about the reading process, to double back onto one’s own track, to sniff the air for one’s own scent, can be a heady experience. Cass White grounds us expertly. Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life is a delight to read primarily because it eschews the easy commonplaces of the “why you should read” genre in order to get at the core of the experience itself. And the experience itself—vital, paradoxical, covert—contains an essential transcendence as profound as the literature that inspires it.
by Heather Cass White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 06, 2021
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he is now pursuing a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.