The BookBrunch Interview: Damon Young and a new theory of reading

Jasmin Kirkbride
News - Interviews Friday, 26 May 2017

Jasmin Kirkbride talks to the author of a book that explores how we read and how we may read better


Development of a reader
Young describes The Art of Reading as having three strands: autobiographical, philosophical, and "vaguely" sociological. It quickly becomes clear that his analysis of reading is going to step outside the box.

"I realised that it was impossible for me to think about my life without thinking about what I'd read and how I'd read it," he explains. "When I think about my toddler years, it's Mr Men and Asterix. At 11 and 12, it's Sherlock Holmes, then Batman, then a little bit older and it's the Russians, then philosophy. Asking questions about who I am, where I've been and where I'm going are impossible without asking what I was reading. But also how did I read them? What kind of sense did I make of them?"

From this personal base, Young began to explore the connections between reading, freedom and responsibility. "We don't really hear a lot about the reader's power," he explains. "We hear a lot about authors and their majesty or failings, but we don't often hear what the reader can and ought to do."

On the "vaguely" sociological aspect, he says: "My wife's a sociologist, so I know this isn't proper sociology. I suspect it's the same here, but certainly in Australia, there are a lot of writer's festivals and courses. There are newspaper and magazine articles on how to write a bestseller. Tips and tricks about being a wonderful writer. I have no problem with writing, obviously - that would be bizarre and perverse of me; but we very rarely hear about the readers - and without us, the readers, there is no work. We have to take those marks on a page or pixels on a screen and turn them into something. The book's dead without a reader to bring it to life, and I wanted to take that seriously."

This connects with the question of responsibility. "What if being an excellent reader were a genuine ambition? We hear so much about 'I want to be a good author... I want to have my name on a spine on a shelf.' It's perfectly legitimate. But what about teaching our children, 'One day you may be a great reader. Those rudimentary skills you're learning at home and in school, you can continue to grow and enhance those throughout your life.' This idea that through every stage of your life you're continually being mindful of how you're reading and asking, 'Could I have read that more patiently or generously or bravely?' I thought that was missing from our conversations about reading, the sense that the reader too has the opportunity to develop."

Define 'reading well'
"What I've suggested is that the best way to think about 'reading well' is that there is no law. It's not an easy universal principle, you can't just say, 'The way to read is like this.' Our experiences and books are too diverse for that to make sense. We can't even read the same book in the same way, let alone all the different books." He cites the Bible. "Love of God's a perfectly reasonable Christian response to the Bible, sure, but it's not enough. There are so many different ways to read the Bible, let alone Nietzsche, and Jane Austen, and Henry James... There is no law."

Instead, Young suggests, reading well is about cultivating virtues. "Virtues sounds really hand-wringy and pearl-clutchy and a bit stuffy, but virtue is just an excellence," he says. "It's our translation of the Greek word Arete, which just meant excellence. You could have moral, intellectual, physical excellences. You could be a virtuous runner. So the good thing about virtues is that they're not rules, they're dispositions to act in a certain way, in a certain time and place.

"That's what learning to read well is. It's picking up a book, and having a sense of when it's time to stop, or slow down. It's having a sense of why you're afraid, and why you should be or shouldn't be. There are some books that you might be too fragile to read, and so not reading them is not cowardly - at all. Part of the virtue of bravery is knowing when it will be foolhardy to read something that will rip you into pieces and turn you into a horror. You have to be fair to yourself. You may give weeks of your life to this work, and if you're not reading it patiently and bravely and curiously, you might get absolutely nothing from it. We can dedicate years of life to these shapes on a page, and we can be wasting them because we weren't being mindful enough of how we're approaching the work."

Young's "ethos of reading" is about being fair to authors as well as readers. "I don't think we always have to think what authors think, or believe what they want us to think, or whatever. I'm not reducing the text to the author. But we do have to do them justice: after all, they have chosen these words in this order and this genre and so on. It should be win win: authors should feel like readers have done them justice, but readers should feel like they've got the most out of a book." The author has written something, but it isn't complete until readers complete it. It's an ongoing creative process.

For those about to jump on their genre high-horses, these theories do not necessarily concern "highbrow" stuff. "Everyone doesn't have to read high-modernist literature. You could be reading a thriller - you could be reading comics. Whatever it is, it's knowing why you're reading it and how to get the most out of that experience."

Reading and betterment
When it comes to why reading is a worthwhile thing to do, Young holds refreshingly few illusions. "At the end of the day, people read because they love reading. There's a lot of really flattering ideas about why we read," he says. "You see it a lot in the press - reading makes you a better person, increases empathy, etc. And I completely get it, I can think of instances where I've read works and I know that I've been tenderised to them, but I'm kind of wary of the flattery that goes on in the idea that because we're readers, we're better people. I don't think it works that way. Absolutely, we can cultivate virtues in response to the text, but reading doesn't make us anything. It's about how we respond to the work and what it offers."

Reading opens worlds, challenging our preconceptions. "Art can unself you. It can pull you out of your own egocentrism, and that's a wonderful thing," Young says. "But it doesn't have to be good. Reading offers experiences and that's no small thing. To exist and be alive is to have experiences, a constant to and fro between us and the world, creature and environment, 'I' and 'thou', and reading offers us that. It offers us an experience of the world that then feeds back into experience. Whatever we get from a work, we will only get from that experience."

In War and Peace, Young explains, one of the messages is to be kind - but it is only through the experience of Pierre that you gain some idea of what it is actually to act kindly. "It's only through the experience of the work that you could comprehend that, let alone acting on it. And it's all kind of experiences, that don't necessarily have anything to do with empathy or being a good person, sometimes they just feed your curiosity. Sometimes they're just really interesting. Kant on ethics is aesthetically awful. You don't necessarily come out of it a better person or more empathetic, but if you want to think clearly about the nature of ethics, Kant is amazing. He's not necessarily right, but he gets you thinking about what morality is or isn't. That's not an experience you can have with another book. It's only through Kant that you have that experience."

The reading ecosystem
"The trap in talking about this is that you can think it's all about the individuals, but virtues can't be cultivated alone," Young says. "We're social animals and we need others in order to develop these well. It's with other human beings and their weirdly different sensibilities that we learn more about our own, that we reach our sense of possible readings. I've given talks to people who've been in the same book club for 50 years. Whenever they pick up a work, they have 10 other minds reading alongside them, enriching their interpretations, challenging their habits, correcting their blindspots. Even if they don't agree, they have a sense of where they sit relative to all these different other readings."

What Young is suggesting is that, despite much discussion on the solitude of reading, it's actually a very social habit. "While that sense of solitude and escape is important, we enrich reading by doing it alongside others. It's a gregarious pursuit."

It is particularly important that children have people round them who read, and who inspire them to read. But pressures on the library service are not helping. "We've got a whole bunch of people who can't navigate the modern world through the written word. That's not something that can just be fixed with individuals. That needs proper, resourced libraries, it needs teachers in schools. I just love watching as possibilities open up for kids in libraries. They forage around, find a book, find a beanbag, and they enter a world that wasn't there before."

Being read to by someone you love, and who loves you, is also invaluable. "That feeling of sitting in someone's lap, hearing the words read aloud, looking at the strange marks on the page, that becomes an expression of love. So often the first thing you learn about books is not grammar, it's not a genre, it's that someone loves you, and that the written word is a way of expressing that. That's amazing. It has to preserved."

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