On Reddit there is a phenomenon known as the circlejerk subreddit: an offshoot of a main subreddit that exists to make jokes about the excesses of the sub’s culture. On r/scacirclejerk, women laugh about r/skincareaddiction’s tendency to post flawless selfies and then complain about their wrinkles and blemishes, or how 15-year-olds are deathly afraid of aging. My favourite circlejerk subreddit is r/bookscirclejerk, which pokes fun at the members of r/books (known on the sub as ‘arrrbooks’), who seem to have exclusively read 1984 and the Harry Potter series and insist on comparing every real-life situation to one of the two. The best post on r/bookscirclejerk is a link to a real post on BookRiot entitled ‘Keeping Up a Bookish Lifestyle without Actually Reading’, an idea which would beggar belief if reading in this particular internet circle hadn’t been co-opted into a personal brand rather than a hobby.
In the absence of an introduction justifying its purpose or arrangement, I can only assume that these self-professed bookish non-readers are the audience for Why We Read, a collection of 70 micro-essays on – according to the subtitle – why we read nonfiction, though a number of the contributing authors seem to have missed this prompt and write on reading more generally.
The resulting book, edited by Josephine Greywoode, feels like a barrage of reflections that on the whole adopt a self-congratulatory attitude for simply being a Reader, an Enlightened One, especially in this era of fake news and the lesser distractions of social media and trashy TV. Many of the essays repeat the idea that reading is especially crucial to critical thinking, especially given how much we read almost passively and how that often unthinking absorption of material shapes how we exist and interact with the world. This point is an important one; I only wish it weren’t presented over and over again without subtlety or challenge, an implicit whisper of ‘but that’s not you, because you are a reader’. One of the best essays in the collection, by Richard J. Evans, is the exception that proves the rule: while his essay does end with a clichéd refrain on fake news and critical thinking, he eviscerates the idea that simply reading is enough to make a person wise or good.
The main problem with Why We Read is that I couldn’t figure out who or what the book is for. Is it a coffee table book, or a bedside reader for people who only have a few minutes at a time to read? The effect of reading it is one of wandering through a bookstore, remembering all the books you have at home and wanting to go home and pick them up; my primary instinct throughout Why We Read was to put it down and do some ‘real’ reading. For someone who wants to feel that they are among peers, or ‘understood’ as a member of the reading public, the book might scratch that itch, but it’s hard – as a ‘Reader’ myself – not to feel put off by its undercurrent of condescension. The answer to ‘why I read’ oughtn’t be ‘because I’m special’, and while I doubt that any of the books contributors set out to say so, the message certainly comes across.
The standout essays in the collection are those that overcome the larger problems of the book, offering specific arguments for certain types of nonfiction, such as Richard Dawkins’ essay about science writing, Rosemary Hill on reading the correspondence of historical figures, and Clare Jackson on biography. Others do not limit themselves to a literal interpretation of ‘why we read’ but transform the prompt into something more, as in the excellent essays of Milo Beckman, Clare Chambers, Christopher de Hamel, Jennifer Jacquet, Emma Jane Kirby, Timothy Morton, and Priya Satia. The best essay in the collection is its last, by Slavoj Žižek, which is more a dense philosophical treatise on how we interpret – though I will admit my biases as a PhD student who spends a lot of time reading literary theory.
At its best, this collection forces you away from the question ‘why am I reading this?’ to ‘why do I read?’ None of the essays on their own are sufficient, but the best of them suggest alternative modes of reading, writing and thinking, as well as questions of methodology and genre, that readers can reckon with and situate themselves against. The essays I mention above would be well-suited to a high school English class, in which students are assigned them and ask to write their own justification for reading (or not reading, which would be useful, too). On reflection, it seems that Why We Read was probably dreamt up to act as an easy gift for your ‘bookish’ friends. As an alternative, I’d suggest any of the books written by the contributors to Why We Read – as they are all genuinely talented writers, when given the space to fully explore their ideas, and a coherent centre to organise them around.
[Why We Read is out on May 5th, 2022. Thank you very much to NetGalley and Penguin for providing me with this e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.]