I was at a dinner party a few weeks ago at the home of an impressive reader and amongst other impressive readers. At some point my sense of inadequacy got the better of me and I made a joke about how I don’t really read much at all. Another dinner guest exclaimed, ‘Me too!’ and we raised our wine glasses like we’d seen done in television shows and movies. Later that evening, the conversation turned to some books that were published recently and, of course, I had a liquored opinion on every single one. The person sitting across from me said, ‘I thought you said you didn’t read?’ and I had nothing to say in response. I think my feelings of inadequacy around reading come from the same place as my feelings of inadequacy around living. There’s just so much out there to see and do and read and know that it’s hard not to feel small in the face of it. It is not that I don’t read. I do read: I read signs, menus, recipes, articles, tweets, advice, essays, pages out of magazines, poems, text messages, emails, nutrition labels on food and, occasionally, I read books. I read, yes, but I also breathe, and I also eat, and I sleep, and I write, and I water my plants.
But books are different. Books feel different. It seems that my life revolves around whichever book I am reading at any given time. I often surprise myself by how quickly I can turn any conversation towards whatever I read about last, and my writing and reading lives are inseparable to the point where I often don’t remember writing an essay or a short story, but I do remember what I was reading when I wrote it. I find myself dwelling on this feeling of inadequacy around books specifically, as opposed to reading more generally: there’s so much that I don’t know, so many books that I haven’t read, so many books that I’ll never read.
Recently, I read Edward Said’s Orientalism for the first time, and while reading it I became painfully aware of how every single thought I’ve ever had around the politics of the gaze, and representation, and the condition of our colonised bodies and minds was lacking for not having read his book. It is this anxiety that dominates my reading life; but it is an unsatisfying anxiety since I have come to believe that there is no resolution to it. Or, if there is, then it’s not the work of an essay to resolve it; but rather the work of a life.
There are different ways of looking at the role that books play in our lives and it is worth noting that beyond their specific content or, in some cases, in spite of it, books are objects that are imbued with their own psychic and symbolic power, and power (to borrow a concept from Michel Butor and a phrase from Michel Foucault) is an art of contingencies: it’s an extrapolation of possible conditions built upon underlying systems, agreements and structures.
There is an app that has thoroughly infiltrated my internet life through targeted advertising, which follows me around, appearing at the end of articles and essays and in the midst of my various feeds. This app promises to ‘Fit reading into your life,’ by summarising books into digestible chunks of 15-minute summaries, promising me much but in so doing, completely misreading me. The website copy for this app is nauseating in a way that we’re all familiar with:
The best and brightest—and richest—CEOs in the world all have one thing in common: they read. This invaluable habit is essential if you want to become like your entrepreneurial heroes—you need to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can. Let the Blinkist app help you step up your game.
It seems almost pointless to examine why this app and others like it are so abject, but it’s an important example of just how dangerous and slippery this notion that reading is a thing to be consumed; that books are mined for resources, streamlined and strip-searched for their economic utility. There’s a palpable aura of depletion around this idea of reading as just another thing to consume on the path to ‘success’ (defined here as arriving at the highest rung of the corporate ladder) that robs us of the will to even engage with it, but that is its power. This extractive model of reading fits neatly into the extractive model of corporate capitalism, which at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, isn’t very useful to a healthy and ethical life. But what if we’re all on a spectrum of this kind of thinking? What if our intellectual and social engagement with reading is merely a screen for the same kind of extractive engagement? What if all this reading is just cheap tinsel? Beyond any anxieties I might have around what I read and don’t read, it is this larger anxiety around the ways we are conditioned to think about reading that I find most troubling.
Recently, a friend of mine started a new job working at a secondary school near my house and we made plans for them to stop by after work so we could grab an early dinner together. Ten minutes before they were due to arrive, I noticed with horror that the books strewn about my dining table and couch, the books that I was currently reading, were embarrassing. Well, not embarrassing, exactly, but they weren’t conducive to a certain image of myself that I was invested in maintaining. I quickly replaced the space opera I was reading with a book on keeping and maintaining indoor plants and swapped out a boring book on Hegel that I was making no progress on with the infinitely cooler Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau. We all want to be known in very specific ways, and this instinctive urge to attach specific meaning to books as objects is one that is difficult to shake. The very real problem of literature is that it becomes grotesque when the act of reading becomes indistinguishable from a version of living that is mediated through the act of consumption. I didn’t read Nabokov because I was interested in Nabokov (I’ve always been sceptical of his work); I read Nabokov merely to have read him, to be able to say that I have read him. This might seem unfair to Nabokov, who I’m sure never intended for his work to be regarded as representative of a certain kind of twentieth-century literariness, and who probably did not anticipate the disintegration of the notion of a western canon, as it began to rightly be seen as a protection racket for the mediocre and oppressive dominance of white men with tenure.
In Writers in Politics, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which I am reading right now, points out that literature, ‘is a reflection on the aesthetic and imaginative planes, of a community’s wrestling with its total environment to produce the basic means of life, food, clothing, shelter, and in the process creating and recreating itself in history.’ I think this is an important point to make, despite how obvious it seems, because this tendency to see reading and living as two distinct acts whose relationship is mediated through a transactive model, or worse, the tendency to see reading and writing as something belonging to the metaphysical or ethereal or surreal world, is not only false, it is also actively dangerous. And the ways in which it is dangerous has very real physical implications for those of us who live in regimes that seek our silence and destruction, to those of us who are subject to continuing legacies of violence and dispossession enacted against our bodies. One can see this violence happening in real time both abroad and at home, from the Abbott and later Coalition Government’s gutting of essential services, arts funding, and large-scale transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich through tax cuts and subsidies, to the fascist campaigns of violence and intimidation against Indigenous and other vulnerable communities by Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Taken together, these coordinated and calculated programs of erasure differ primarily in their scale, but the playbook is the same. Just as the voicing of a community’s cultural life is an act of living, the erasure of a cultural life is merely one step on the road to a total erasure of a people. The impact is not just on the bodies of those being erased but also, as James Baldwin points out, on the moral lives of those benefiting from or complicit in this erasure.
But how to escape this? The relationality between our bodies and the ways in which we interact with things outside of our bodies is not the issue. Or, if it is the issue, it is only in-so-far as it shares the same root-level rot as many other endeavours of life under capitalism. I think we really are conditioned to see our cultural lives as separate from the act of living, as unnecessary indulgences, as external to our social and political lives. Even the idea of one’s body as distinct from one’s environment, as Elizabeth Povinelli notes in her book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, informs the emergence of the biocentric subject as the dominant mode of subjective experience under late liberalism. And it’s not a long bow to draw a link between this epistemological break between biopolitical orderings (the notion that our body is the primary expression of our agency and the various ways it is included the mechanisms and calculations of power) and geopolitical orderings (of the environment as a site of extraction, classification, and dominion) at the level of subject formation to ongoing projects of colonial violence perpetuated at home and across the world.
What I mean to say is that there’s a very real violence done when we think of ourselves as separate from the social and environmental conditions of our bodies: to read and write a book isn’t so different a thing than to listen to bird calls and the rush of a stream and the wind that batters against the window on a cold night. An intellectual life is a physical life, a whole life, and the silencing of one is the silencing of another. At this point there is no doubt that our environment is headed towards catastrophe, and the implications are staggering in their scope. To think: what will a world without bird calls in the spring sound like? What art will we produce in a world devoid of plant and animal life? What will our songs sound like in cities where heavy metal pollution shreds the delicate membranes of our lungs? What will a return to nature look like when we can only remember its absence? What does the sea mean when it is sterile?
Every single relationship we form with an activity or with a task or with each other is mediated through the relationships we have with everything else and these relationships, if unexamined, can add up to a cruel arithmetic of extraction and consumption. In this sense: reading is important because it’s an act of living, and I speak here of reading as a part of a broader engagement with the world through one’s culture and community, which implies that reading has an intrinsic value without necessarily having a qualitative value (what does it mean to live a good life beyond the demands of basic morality?). In many respects, this idea of a reading life being indistinguishable from a whole life isn’t as strange as it first appears. Like reading, life is messy, it’s incomplete, it disappoints us, it occasionally delights us, and a lot of the time we don’t understand it at all.
After I left the dinner party, I was turning over in my mind a line from a Virginia Woolf essay, Thunder at Wembley: ‘The area was too small, the light too brilliant.’ She was describing her experience of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1924, but I found myself returning to that sentence, thinking of all its varied and poetic applications in my life; isolating it, taking it from its context and applying it to my own life. I was thinking of all the ways in which small things, seemingly inconsequential, can overwhelm me with feeling. I think the ethic of literature as life is powerful for this exact reason: our lives are so small, the light of the world too brilliant, and it’s tremendous comfort to attempt to lay a few things to rest, to witness a certain condition, to observe and comment on an aspect of life that feels necessary because it’s an aspect, and not the whole.
Khalid Warsame is a writer who lives in Melbourne. His essays and fiction have appeared in The Lifted Brow, Overland Literary Journal, The Big Issue, Acclaim Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, and Djed Press.