Monday, January 14, 2013

Literacy, Literature, and the Literary: Defining Practices of Reading

           “Reading” is a complicated word: reading can mean the simple act of reading a novel, the process of constructing a perspective on a text (doing a reading), or a larger educational phenomenon which is often dedicated its own week in elementary school battles of the books. In any of these cases, the object one reads can vary—from children’s books to contemporary bestsellers to “high” literature to cultural objects and works of art—as can the process itself, whether for enjoyment, practical skills, or academic argument. [...]
What constitutes a practice of reading is culturally and circumstantially informed: the idea of curling up with a “good” book (whatever that is) and a pot of tea, donning one’s spectacles and preparing for an event constituted by simultaneously inhabiting one’s own reality and entering into an imagined one, for example, is a rather bourgeois Western conception of recreation. And yet this form of recreational reading is also rapidly becoming an antique: it’s now possible to read the latest bestseller spawned from internet fan fiction on one’s computer, or to spend time reading blogs on one’s cell phone, or even to read a retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by on Facebook (

            So what exactly does it mean to read?

            Enter the problematic terms literacy, literature, and the literary: three words which invoke the idea of reading, and three words which mean rather different things. Literacy, the ability to read, is generally considered not only to be a good thing, but a requirement for existing within society. From an early age, education teaches us that being able to read is a highly important skill, not just in the sense of being able to parse series of symbols on a page (or a computer screen), but also for the ability to understand and reiterate what one has just read. Literature is the thing that we read, although the word can signify simply information about a given subject (as in the literature on the matter), or specify a type of work, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, mass culture or high literary object. These distinctions are not cut and dry, and “literature” is used to designate all of them at various times. The literary plays with these distinctions: while it can refer to literature in general, associations with the word literary more often pertain to the study of literature in an academic sense, as in literary history, literary criticism, or literary style. Literary study is about reading in a specific way, toward the goal of making a statement or argument about a given text.

            This blog will consider the ways in which these three ideas about reading—literacy, literature, and the literary—are defended and/or criticized within popular culture, education policies, nonprofit groups, academic circles, and in my own investment in and enjoyment of reading. In other words, how do we go about defending practices of reading? And do they even need defending? Prevailing ideas about literacy mark it as an essential value, one which should be promulgated within underprivileged communities as a kind of ticket to success, while popular conceptions of academic literary study define it as impractical if enjoyable at best. With such disparate ideas of the value of reading, how do we go about making sense of these discussions? If practical knowledge, such as that gained from technological and scientific fields, is more ideal for making profitable citizens, deemphasizing literature in upper education, then why doesn’t education policy in elementary schools, for example, focus only on technical and scientific literacy, rather than works of fiction? Furthermore, why do academic institutions disdain certain types of reading as guilty pleasures, “low” literature which ought not to constitute a serious object of reading? This blog will take up these ongoing debates about what practices of reading are worth pursuing and what is invested in making those claims, hopefully to find some space for defending enjoyable reading with one’s tea and spectacles.

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