The first half of my life I read for pleasure every day. I came home, curled up in the beanbag chair next to my bookshelf, and read for an hour or three. Although I played sports, did homework, and hung out with friends, my life as a middle schooler was less than busy. According to a monthly reading journal I kept, I averaged three books a week. Full disclosure, my parents limited the time I could spend on the computer. We had one desktop, located in a cabinet between kitchen and family room. We didn’t own any video game systems. (My dad bought broken pinball machines and we fixed them, and we had a foosball table.) Wednesday was the one night a week we watched TV.
The first time I wrote the preceding paragraph, I ended it, “I entertained myself with my books.” But that isn’t a perfectly accurate statement, because I didn’t think that books were entertainment. Reading was an integrated part of my life, no different from eating dinner. The absence of books would have been unthinkable.
When I started high school, I stopped reading for pleasure except over holidays. I had more of everything: more activities, more homework, more friends. And more electronic stimulation, because my parents realized that limits on computer use forced me to blitz through essays and research. I got my first laptop for my middle school graduation. Without supervision, I discovered instant messaging and stayed up late at night talking with my peers. Instead of reading by myself, I expanded my social circles, which perhaps suggests that reading and dialogue or the life of the mind and social life are mutually exclusive. The contradiction of reading and socializing is a recent phenomenon, though; from “the republic of letters” to literary salons, reading has been a historically communal activity. While the Internet has made it possible for the salon to move into digital forums, a limited number of teenagers discuss literature on listservs. More so than television, which remained a background channel until I left for college, time spent on the Internet traded off with reading.
Pleasure reading has become a dirty turn of phrase. Considering the sexual connotation of “pleasure,” the slip of fun into smut isn’t exactly surprising. Yet we might ask how a particular category of “bad reading,” the erotic, has come to imply a more general set of reading behaviors; that is, how has an attack on erotic books become an attack on reading for fun, nothing more?
Erotica is solitary stuff. To read dirty books is shameful in part because of their content, which bucks conservative sexual mores, but mostly because they empower the individual—myself minus companions. The reader of pornographic and obscene literature does not need the validation of an external audience. He or she probably wouldn’t receive it, even if he or she was looking for it. Against the threat that erotica poses to the couple as concept, we have set up a cultural defense, the stereotypes of the troll, the pervert, and the loner.
But what about ordinary books, the non-explicit or prurient? How did it happen that reading became a specialized task that one completed during designated times in roped-off corridors? Why do we have books that are written for reading on the beach?
In the process of defining a good life as a social life, and moreover, a social life of a certain sort—one conducted in virtual coffeehouses—we have condemned all lonely pursuits as selfish and narcissistic. “Pay-per-view” means sex, despite its so-called “legitimate”channels, for example, Ultimate Fighting Championships. “Dining alone” means loneliness, despite the possibility that a table-for-one follows from circumstances neither pathetic nor the tragic. We label the isolated as the lonely because it has been conditioned, culturally and socially, as a useful shortcut. We hear “pay-per-view” and assume businessman-in-hotel-room. We see a person eating “by his lonesome” and assume that he is alone because he is unable to be with others. Besides perversion, why would someone choose to isolate himself? Our reliance on these shortcuts reflects a poverty of imagination. Thus, a term like “anti-social” can enter our vocabulary and come to stand for any behavior orchestrated by a party of one. Just as a brownie or Internet porn is sinful, but especially so when eaten or watched in solitude, the art of reading alone is a crime against nature. For man is a social animal, and his nature is to live among others. Even when we take “me-time,” we do so in order to broadcast our individuality and isolation to the crowd. Me-time is sign of class, the privilege that affords time for the self partitioned from the time that rightfully belongs to others. But what has happened to the things we do by ourselves, for ourselves, and tell no one about? What has happened to the secret things, the rituals and habits and oddities that we keep quiet and cherish inside? There are still remainders from Internet life reserved for the personal, but they are endangered and dwindling. Public intimacy has appropriated the sacred time set aside for the self.
Only on vacations from ordinary life are we expected to escape the collective. Reading for pleasure becomes a break from the daily drag. Such a treat to sit down with a book with no phones or email, or to have enough energy to focus on an object other than a screen. This logic is self-perpetuating. Once an activity becomes reserved for the extraordinary, it is a stumble away from abnormal. Consigned to vacation time, pleasure reading is safe. When it breaks free from that expectation, when pleasure reading infiltrates the everyday—when we start reading Dickens in our cubicles or jostling straphangers to flip a page or turn off American Idol or Girls or Homeland or power down laptops in favor of a thick-spined book—we begin to wonder why we have to confine our reading to stolen moments.. First, we question why we require a staycation from electronic stimulation, second, why books are the appropriate form for that respite, and third, why we need a break at all! At the time of its invention, the novel was a technology designed to alleviate boredom. Now, we need something comparatively boring to relieve the anxiety and stress of living. The most dangerous inquiry of all is one for revolutionary thinking, but banal all the same: Why don’t we read instead of reading for pleasure?
It was when I realized that reading was my vocation that I began to read for pleasure again. From that epiphany, I understood that the distinction between reading and reading for pleasure is a state of mind, a willful orientation to any activity. For it is our choice to say, “I am reading for pleasure,” rather than “I am reading,” to think that the difference between the two statements is true. By virtue of a minor rethinking, a slight alteration in phrase, we have taken back enough power to scrutinize the surety of other received wisdoms: that we are social animals, and that our social world has migrated into the digital.