Are Americans Bad at Reading?

Are Americans Bad at Reading?

Novelist Elaine Castillo’s essays reflect on reading as an ethical act and the moral politics of literature in the US.


In 2018, the writer Elaine Castillo released her debut novel, America Is Not the Heart, which is set in the Philippines and in California, following generations of the island nation’s diaspora. It’s a sprawling, vivid book, sensual and political and abundantly affectionate toward its characters. Yet not all readers, Castillo discovered on her book tour, seemed willing to treat those characters—or, indeed, their creator—as if they were multidimensional people. Instead, white readers kept asking Castillo why she’d used untranslated Tagalog, Pangasinan, and Ilocano words in the text, or expected her to teach them the history of the Philippines, or told her that the novel “made them feel terrible about your country,” as she writes in her bracing essay collection How to Read Now.

How to Read Now is at once a fierce condemnation of American reading culture, which Castillo rightly sees as racist and consumerist, and a fervent ode to reading’s potential. On the book’s first page, Castillo describes herself as a reader first, a person second. Reading is, to her, a vital part of self-education and self-creation, at once an “intellectual exercise, an aesthetic exercise, and a profoundly private, emotional and visceral undertaking—while also being an ethical act; a civic act.” Lazy or sloppy reading is, therefore, not just a missed opportunity but a moral failure. Castillo’s essays diagnose and describe, in great and punishing detail, the racist habits of mind that so often lead readers—especially those who work within the publishing industry—to treat nonwhite writers as representatives of their culture or race, rather than as “artists due the same depth and breadth of critical engagement as their white colleagues.”

Although How to Read Now is technically about reading, it doubles as a work of refreshingly blunt literary criticism. Its essays are so thoroughly linked by their worldview that the book often feels less like a collection than a single, impassioned argument on behalf not only of thoughtful, ethical reading, but also of fiction designed to be thoughtfully, ethically read—fiction that is both a world unto itself and a lens through which to examine the world around us. Castillo has no patience for books that, as she writes of Joan Didion’s Democracy, archly “hold [themselves] above everyone and everything,” refusing to accept any reading but an aesthetic one. She dislikes art that resists historical interpretation, wanting “to neither be made nor possible: it wants to just be.” Finally, she has no patience for what she calls “Representation Matters Art,” which mistakes a commodified form of visibility for progress or freedom. Real artistic liberation, Castillo argues, cannot come through art that turns people into “delegates” or “figureheads.” Instead, How to Read Now sings the praises of books and films like Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw: angled, detailed, attitudinal works of art that, in their strangeness, come alive. Only this kind of art can accomplish what Castillo sees as the truest purpose of reading: to awaken an attentive reader to a new bit of their own life.

Of course, no book can move a person who doesn’t want to be moved. What a writer does matters exactly as much, in any given reading experience, as what the reader is ready to take on. In part, this is why How to Read Now is about reading, not writing. It is also why Castillo deals in depth with reading culture, including the marketing blitzes, jacket copy, and tour events that so often help books get into readers’ hands. A great publicist can protect a book from sloppy or slothful reading simply by setting expectations appropriately high. But too often, publishers see their audience not as readers—thoughtful people whose expectations matter—but as buyers simply looking to acquire the hot new book. As a direct result, our reading culture has become a consumer one that presents books as accessories or turns them into signals of politics or status or vibe. None of this is conducive to seeing reading as what Castillo argues it is: a way to better know the world, a “place to truly be diverted from oneself.”

In “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions,” an essay that is, to my mind, the highlight of How to Read Now, Castillo writes: “Readers do half the work of a book’s life; that means we also do half the heavy lifting of its project. I write books about Filipinx people because that is part of my work, and there is no part of my work that is not intertwined with yours—there is no part of being a person, with history, on this planet, that is not in some way intertwined with another’s.” At first glance, this passage may seem vague: Is she talking about artistic work? Moral? Political? But in the essay, which spirals out from the genocide-denying Austrian writer Peter Handke winning the Nobel Prize to reject the idea that fiction—especially literary fiction like Handke’s—should be “seen and interpreted as dealing with a universally legible and graciously apolitical soulfulness,” it’s apparent that Castillo is talking about the work of reading the world: interpreting it, making sense of it, allowing for the times it makes no sense at all. For anyone who demands apolitical and universal legibility—which is to say, anyone who refuses to put themselves or others in political and historical context—that work is simply not possible.

Yet not all readers understand the importance of context. Indeed, Castillo argues that white supremacy is, among other things, a “formative collection of fundamentally shitty reading techniques” that includes refusing to put “whole swaths of the world” in context. Yet what interests Castillo much more than arguing for historical context is discussing a figure she calls the “unexpected reader”: a person that the author did not write toward, did not imagine reading their book, and certainly never saw as part of their book’s context—except, perhaps, as “an object, not as a subject.” An unexpected reader comes to a text from outside its frame of reference. This is not a bad thing: Castillo has always been an unexpected reader, and she sees her unexpectedness as “the most valuable gift of my intellectual life.”

Consumer reading culture does not account for the unexpected reader, who by their very nature cannot be targeted by blurbs or sales pitches. Unexpected readers are ready, in a way the reactionary reader cannot be, to approach a book as a site of endless positive or negative possibility. Castillo writes that being an unexpected reader “meant that I was almost always lost, and always foreign, and always had to make my way through with the only tool I had: continuing to read.” She had to figure out the context to put books in, and at the same time to figure out a way to put herself in their context. I do a variation of the same on getting to know a new person. I want to learn who they are, yes; but I also want to make myself reachable to them, to make it possible for them to learn me.

Such mutual learning is not especially commodifiable. As long as reading culture is a subset of consumer culture, many—perhaps most—readers will be encouraged to read books whose context they already know or think they know, and may well struggle to find any others. Katy Waldman’s summary of the Department of Justice’s succesful effort to prevent Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster elucidates the forces behind that struggle. Although the “elusiveness of a good formula for success means that small presses and self-published authors all have a shot at producing a best-seller,” Waldman writes, big presses are much more likely to succeed financially due to “their ability to manage risk.” Big publishers are richer and more stable than small ones. They’re also inclined to put the bulk of their marketing money behind the type of books whose profitability they can depend on.

Castillo’s arguments on behalf of unexpected reading are, therefore, not only striking but vital. How to Read Now compels us to dispel any incurious approach to both books and the world. In her final essay, Castillo analyzes the Homeric tale of Polyphemos, the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, for whom she feels deep solidarity. Before Odysseus arrived on the scene, Polyphemos was just living his life. After, he “remains at home, but he’s been made foreign by Odysseus: a barbarian, a savage, someone whose entire world can be invaded, stripped for parts, and then abandoned.” Neither Odysseus nor Homer is especially curious about Polyphemos—but Castillo is, and her reading gives the story a new layer of nuance and pathos. This is the value and virtue of curious reading, reading that resists received narratives and authorial intent: It makes books better. It may well make readers better, too.

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