04 febrero 2012

"The Vice of Reading" by Edith Wharton, A Review

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[...] a story is told of one such reader whom a flippant relative kept for a year at "Fire and Sword in the Soudan" by the unfeeling stratagem of shifting the marker every night...
Edith Wharton,
American writer 1862-1937.
Conversations with Edith Wharton: A review on The Vice of Reading
by Delfina Morganti H.-
In her outrageously attractive, sometimes ruefully hilarious essay The Vice of Reading, Edith Wharton introduces what we will often call the "habit" of reading (of "reading per se," as she puts it) in the form of the first and foremost item within the list of vices that are "so hard to eradicate" precisely because they are "popularly regarded as virtues." That is, virtues parallelled to, as quoted from Wharton, "thrift, sobriety, early rising and regular exercise."

Wharton derives her assertions from many reasons which she cares to outline in a very straightforward, even bald way that will have the avid reader biting their nails till the very last. Now, if one stops and thinks about the introduction to The Vice of Reading, her line of thought and criticism seems to lead to one particular direction, and that is of the industrialization and mass production of the printing press:
That "diffusion of knowledge" commonly classed with sleam-heat and universal suffrage in the category of modern improvements, has incidentally brought about the production of a new vice— the vice of reading.
By blaming the "diffusion of knowledge", Wharton seems to debase, question and satirise our commonly-held views on the numberless advantages that the reaching of the literature and reading material in general ought to have offered the mass of new readers that the print industry inexorably bred as a consequence of its expansion in the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Not that Wharton implies to protest against the widespread of literacy in The Vice of Reading. Rather, she sounds as though she were an author in outrage, a reader heedless of imminent danger, who could have frowned and trembled on hearing someone point out lavishly that they stick to a very particular routine when it comes to reading, or that they make a point of reading "every book that is talked about."
She writes about her own viewpoint on literary boom and how it has affected the society of her times, and she does so with exquisite wit, absolutely gallant humour and a lot of true-to-life metaphorical language.
Mechanical VS Born readers
It is not, in fact, "that "diffusion of knowledge"" which she will end up pouring scorn on but, rather, the fact that within the scope of changes that such an advance once brought about, it has also led to the literacy (-ry) boom which has born and brought up a most despicable, ridiculously meticulous character: both conceited and feather-brained, he is the very menacing specimen of the empty-headed who, blindly trusting the miraculous powers of reading merely for the sake of reading—whatever comes and come what may— then it should follow that by such routine exercise his mind will be properly supplied with overpowering wit and undoubtedly exquisite talent for rightful criticism and intellect.

In a stream of criticism against those who inherently adhere to the modern trend of reading everything that comes to light, Edith Wharton describes the figure and profile of the "mechanical reader", as opposed to the behaviour displayed by the "born reader", to whom "reading is no more a virtue than breathing."

Wharton can see no genuine virtuosity in what she calls "volitional reading". There is to her no extraordinary gift in reading when deliberately undertaken nor in forcing oneself to read even a thousand books:
... volitional reading— is no more reading than erudition is culture. Real reading is reflex action [...]
To her, the born reader is he who "reads as unconsciously as he breathes." If there is anything like a virtue, then the born reader's virtue lies in his taking reading as a spontaneous and rather natural style of life. On the other hand, there can be no sense of virtue, in Wharton's view, in he who throws himself onto reading in a bid to keep up with whatsoever fashion is dictated by the vox pop.

To Wharton, reading is, consequently, a highly overrated act, and at one point she seems unable to help herself and wonders, "Why should we all be readers?" She then resorts to logic and analogy to question the high demands that society places on itself and she argues that although "we are not all expected to be musicians," somehow there appears to be an  implicit social rule that "read we must."

Out of her analogy between reading and music, the author concludes that one is either born with the talent for reading or else drags oneself to imitate those who were blessed with it:
Those that cannot read creatively read mechanically.
However, this will not prove Wharton's first and last allusion to reading as if it were an inborn talent. In fact, later on she will expressly suggest that "the gift of reading is no exception to the rule that all natural gifts need to be cultivated by practice and discipline." To cap it all, Wharton takes no trouble to offer a word of consolation to those who, on the other hand, unfortunately "lack" such gift— on the contrary, she will even add to their sense of doom and misfortune that "unless innate aptitude exist the training will be wasted." 

("So, beware of gifts," I can imagine her warning her readership nowadays, "for unless you  feel that reading really is your thing, don't bother taking a chance." It may sound too cruel at first, or even far-fetched, but perhaps she is not totally in the wrong. 
"How many a time do people spend hours and hours trying to make a book suit their fancies? And why on Earth do they put off the moment of realisation that it's just not our thing?" she might say on the occasion. "Nay," I can almost hear Wharton telling the victims of her own essay, "forget all about lists and forget all about sales. Go search for your own book. Or none. That only might save you from your fatal fate, mechanical reader nº1455, for you are more often than not doomed to frustration.")
Edith Wharton seems to pour all her determination of character and long-held beliefs in this essay, and she does so in the best eligible way, not by yelling out her fury but simply by putting her thoughts in the best chosen language.
The Vices of the Mechanical Reader
It is during the intervals of his artificial, mechanical training that the mechanical reader is born, out of a pompous need to follow the tide and keep himself updated with the latest in hip. Here one may easily evoke a free association with that hugely impressive parade that will often follow the publication of the latest best-sellers nowadays. Why do masses of readers are often so desperate to catch those books? How come they sell better than others which have been in the market for so long? 
Not necessarily focusing on the answer to these questions, Wharton is in fact far from punishing those who choose to go for "reading trash," which, in any case, is "generally conceded" to be a "vice." No, she goes after those who take pride in reading as if with every book they read they were prized with some new trophy to cast around and then put on public display. To her, "there is little harm in the self-confessed devourer of foolish fiction":
He who feasts upon "the novel of the day" does not seriously impede the development of literature.
Leaving those readers aside, then, she moves on to consider and heap scorn on the "average mechanical reader." Among other sentences, she accuses this type of reader of endangering "the integrity of letters" by taking pride in "[making] it a rule to read;" by regarding "literature as a cable-car that can be "boarded" only by running;" and by never doubting "his intellectual competency," his duty and his right "to read every book that is talked about," thus deriving "his sense of importance [...] in proportion to the number of editions exhausted before publication [...]"

Although these accusations already lay bare the poor qualifications and acute danger which mechanical readers seem to embody, seldom does the author give them a break or stops pointing her finger at them. Without scruples and without pain, she moves on to make the mechanical reader subject to ridicule by claiming that "it is his nature to mistrust and dislike every book he does not understand" and yet, as he sticks to the unpromising prospect of rendering himself "fond of reading," he "is obliged to repress his bibliocidal impulse, and go through the form of trying the case, when lynching would have been so much simpler."
Further explaining the depressing fact that the mechanical reader can never tell if a book will prove worthy of his brains and time, Wharton implies that he automatically takes in everything that he happens to bump into along his hasty way towards Faultless Wit and Rightful Authority:
Until he has read the last line of a book he is unable to form any opinion of it; nor can he give any adequate reasons for his opinion when formed.
Mechanical readers: walking watches or just... irritatingly early birds?
More to the point, because "he always reads consciously" and "knows exactly how much he reads," the mechanical reader is well aware of his own timing. Books are to him like "fossils ticketed and put away in the drawers of a geologist's cabinet." 
He is so worried about completing his task with the utmost care and efficiency that he becomes his own villain, or "the slave of his book-mark," as Wharton puts it, and "if he lose his place he is under the irksome necessity of beginning again at the beginning."
Such discipline, however, seems to have rather a detrimental effect on what would be expected to be a pleasure-seeking, unconsciously time-consuming activity. It is a generally acknowledged truth that for those who are genuinely having fun and truly enjoying themselves out of doing something, time flies. But for the mechanical reader, reading time never flies; it is fixed upon a certain interval of hours, not more and not less. He reads in the same manner as he attends an appointment to the dentist's, and Wharton may be excused if sounding a bit harsh when writing that "he who reads by time often "has no time to read"."
Apart from rendering him time-dependent, discipline will often lead the mechanical reader astray from the "delights of intellectual vagrancy" and will usually keep him from rejoicing in "the improvised chase after a fleeting allusion." It seems therefore that to him the juicy part of reading will often pass unnoticed.

Like reader, like writer
Last, Edith Wharton makes one final accusation against her victim: she claims that the harm which the mechanical reader does to letters is generally carried out "by bringing about the demand for mediocre writing," for the mechanical reader appears to make no distinction  between worthy and unworthy authors. He is never spoilt for choice; he simply must read everything that comes to light, and as he never discriminates one volume against another, never singles one out of many, he "facilitates the career of the mediocre author" as well as "retards true culture and lessens the possible amount of really abiding work."
Well... (Sigh.)

What can one say? The tone Wharton uses in The Vice of Reading can't be called other than assertive. I would not call it aggressive, simply because she hurls no insults at those she identifies under the name of mechanical readers. She writes about her own viewpoint on literary boom and how it has affected the society of her times, and she does so with exquisite wit, absolutely gallant humour and a lot of true-to-life metaphorical language. Edith Wharton seems to pour all her determination of character and long-held beliefs in this essay, and she does so in the best eligible way, not by yelling out her fury but simply by putting her thoughts in the best chosen language.
"It is an ugly truth to state," I can imagine her point out comfortable, her hands under her chin as she calmly stares at her readership, "but someone had to state it. To read is certainly not a virtue, oh, no." And then, quietly, with an oddly disturbing air of solemn simplicity, "To read well is an art. An art, I should say, that only the born reader can acquire."**
*Essay by American authoress Edith Wharton, published in North American Review #177, Oct. 1903.

**The author of this article has paraprhased a line from The Vice of Reading which originally reads as follows: "To read is not a virtue; but to read well is an art, and an art that only the born reader can acquire."

All the excerpts quoted from The Vice of Reading by Edith Wharton have been extracted from the official website of the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library: http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2id=WhaRead.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1

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