Reading Entrails

Can you tell anything about a person by what they read? On some level I guess I have to say yes, though I’ve become a bit more suspicious of the general principle and a bit more judicious in the application of any judgment than I used to be. I grew up in a religious tradition that assumed “garbage in, garbage out” was an axiological principle. Thus you absorbed and in some way became what you read. You are what you read, much as you are what you eat. As a result, reading matter was rigorously monitored and, in practice, severely restricted. “Bad books”—stuff that didn’t clearly support our Christian world view—were regularly described as various forms of poison or at least junk food. Things that would destroy the spiritual and psychological body. I wasn’t allowed to read J.D. Salinger while the rest of my junior class in high school gloried in the high literary profanity of Catcher in the Rye. I was morose, perhaps a sign I didn’t think the unwashed were so unwashed after all. You can read my slightly maudlin reminiscence of my youthful reading experiences in the introduction to my book, Recalling Religions (Tennessee 2001). Currently ranked 3,605,185 on Amazon.com! I excerpt just a bit below:

[In] my imagination, the story of this book’s motivations, interests, and point of view threads back to my first encounters with literature, which always seemed to be troublesome encounters with religion as well. My earliest memories of something that might be called “literature” had nothing to do with Twain or Fenimore Cooper or other authors of “boys’ books” that serious young readers were supposed to read. Indeed, I barely knew of their existence. What I did know was tangled with agonized parental debates—probably exaggerated in my memory—as to what was appropriate for a young boy from a holiness church to read. As late as eighth grade, I remember stading alone and wistful at my homeroom window watching my classmates board a bus for the local theater to see Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby. The chances of attending the film had been slim in the first place, since our church forbade movies along with dancing and drinking as contrary to holy living. Still, I had my hopes. School, combined with the responsibility my parents felt to help their smart children be successful in the world, had always been a slick oil with which I could slip through the narrowest confines of home. The Great Gatsby was a classic novel, or so I assured my parents that the teacher had assured me. Such appeals to the greatness of Western culture lost what little cachet they possessed when my mother discovered that in Fitzgerald’s novel a woman’s breast is torn off by a car.

My mother wanted her son seeing neither breasts nor violence. And so, when I pull my copy of The Great Gatsby off the shelf—a book I did not read until my years as an English major at a Christian College—it is this rather self-pitying memory of me at a window that I see most clearly. For the most part, the dead white male writers and their cinematic representations remained far too worldly for a young holiness boy threatened on every side by the corruption of suburban Oklahoma City.

For a while, education underway and then complete, I thought I had grown out of this attitude, but now I’m not so sure. At least I retained the sense that what you read somehow automatically signified something about who you were. The only difference now was that it had a more elitist and sophisticated cast. Heaven forbid that you indulged in pulp fiction, whether romance or mystery. The chosen people were signified by the ability to parse Faulkner or Morrison, or Eliot or Pound or Dickinson or Whitman. By disdaining books sold in grocery stores. Later, as I became deeply involved in ethnic studies, reading Faulkner, Eliot or Pound–for any reason other than showing their faulty white male-ness–was a profound index of intellectual morality, my own ineffable intellectual and political purity made evident in my reading Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Leslie Marmon Silko.This is not the same kind of religious discrimination that shaped my youth, but it did involve a kind of puritanical pulling up of the skirts from the unwashed of the world. Different unwashed, different skirts, same shrinking. Over time I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s not exactly what you read so much as how you read that’s important. Though, to be honest, the values I assign to the “how” are deeply influenced by the what. The average Harlequin romance or pulp western doesn’t bear up to the attentive, critical and imaginative reading that I think signifies something about a person’s mind and imagination. This kind of reading probably is encouraged by certain kinds of books and not by others, even though, having developed this way of reading, it can be applied almost anywhere on the fly, from Desperate Housewives to Coetzee or Lessing. Thus, my general sense that cultural studies is dependent on forms of reading associated with literature, even while literature itself is falling in to disrepair.

The real occasion for this rumination is that on a lark and in the spirit of the political season, I visited the facebook pages of the leading presidential candidates. Just to see, what these people are reading, and whether I could perform a literary psychopolitical biographical reading of their reading. It’s interesting, but I think I’ll stop for the moment and come back to the literary preferences of Barack, Hillary and Mitt in a later post tomorrow.

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