The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read

The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read

Benjamin Bennett
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 300
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read
    Book Description:

    Reading is good for us. The reading of literature, we are told, enlarges our horizons, extends our experience beyond our own lives. But the moral and political dangers that attend the association of reading with experience have long been understood. And is that association even valid? What if precisely our most important literary texts are constructed so as to challenge or disrupt it? This book is a radical criticism of the concept of reading,especially of the concept of thereader, as commonly used in literary criticism. Bennett starts with the point that readingdoes not name a single, identifiable type of experience or class of experiences. Her then sketches in broad terms the historical provenance of thereader, in an argument that includes discussions of Dante, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Marlowe, and German idealist philosophy. In two concluding chapters on modern German novellas, he suggests that most major European literary works since the eighteenth century are written in direct opposition to the central concepts by which criticism has sought to lay hold of them.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4766-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Everyone agrees that reading, in and of itself, is a good thing. The ability to read gives us power in the real world of society and business. Reading expands and exercises our mind. Reading makes accessible to us vast areas of experience and knowledge that must otherwise have remained strictly foreign. Reading conquers death itself by bringing us into direct contact with the best intellects of past ages. Reading thus creates, re-creates, and constantly revitalizes the traditions by which our historical existence is stabilized and protected against chaos; but reading also constantly makes available to us perspectives from which to...

  5. Part I: Theory
    • 1. Reading and the Theory of Reading
      (pp. 11-43)

      By “reading,” inHow to ReadandABC of Reading, Ezra Pound means a discipline that one acquires only by being guided expertly in the study of exemplary texts. We do not ask people how they read; reading is something we tell people how to do. “I begin with poetry,” says Pound—immediately after suggesting his notorious false etymology “Dichten = condensare”—“because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression.”¹ But he also ends with poetry. And on the few occasions when, for example, he speaks of the novel, he is still talking about discipline—“what ‘writing a...

    • 2. Poems, Myths, and the Advent of Modern Reading
      (pp. 44-82)

      Not many of us would be imprudent enough to suggest that major intellectual shifts simply “take place” in history at a particular point or within a relatively short span of time. The reading of any large Sunday newspaper is enough to remind us that there are many people, indeed many genuinely educated professional writers, who live out their twentieth- or twenty-first-century lives in an entirely pre-Freudian or pre-Marxian or even pre-Galilean universe. And yet, on the other hand, it seems clear that large historical changes do happen on an intellectual plane. But how shall we measure or locate them? Reading...

  6. Part II: History
    • 3. Dante and the Invention of the Novel Reader
      (pp. 85-140)

      If we agree that modern reading, as practiced supposedly by The Reader in each of us, makes a clearly marked entrance upon the western scene in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that This Reader (imagined principally as a novel reader), despite being strictly a theoretical construct, soon comes to occupy a place in our thinking that might otherwise belong to our sense of intimate personal experience—because reading “itself” so strongly resists the quality of experience—then we are faced with a considerable historical problem: how does The Reader arise, This Reader for whom reading is supposed to become...

    • 4. Boccaccio, Cervantes, and the Path to Solitary Reading
      (pp. 141-184)

      One crucial component of The Reader of modern theory is still missing for Dante’s readers—the imagined escape from contingency by which The Reader becomes everywhere The Same Reader. My point now is that this escape is equivalent to the idea of The Reader’s strictly solitary condition, an idea which can perhaps also be traced back to Dante, but only by way of historical slippages of meaning. Dante’s own reader is not imagined as a solitary reader in the modern sense, and could not have been imagined thus in the historical circumstances. Only in a well-developed print culture, I will...

    • 5. Magic and History: The Roots and Branches of Dr. Faustus
      (pp. 185-220)

      The conceptual situation, at this stage in the argument, is not particularly difficult, but there are a couple of points that must be kept carefully in mind:

      1. The Reader, to whose supposed experience modern critics commonly appeal in formulating their perceptions about texts, does not exist in reality. That Reader is a strictly theoretical construct which achieves a species of reality only to the extent that it is internalized and mistaken for a memory of the mind’s actual encounter with a book.

      2. Therefore, when I say that under certain historical conditions (in response to a perceived failure in the operation...

  7. Part III: Response
    • 6. Intransitive Parody and the Trap of Reading: What Reading Really Is
      (pp. 223-263)

      From this point on I will be concerned almost exclusively with German literature. But this move must not be taken to indicate a substantive point, as if western literature’s “Response” to the ascendancy of modern reading were a responsibility shouldered primarily by Germans. I could easily have added, under the rubric of “Response,” a chapter on Gide, a chapter on Joyce, chapters on, say, Burroughs and Melville and Balzac, without repeating any of the principal arguments of this chapter or the next. The “Response” to modern reading, the search for a way to resist the uncomfortable political tendency of modern...

    • 7. Kleist, Kafka, and the Refutation of Reading
      (pp. 264-308)

      There has been a certain amount of debate about the relation between Kleist and Kafka,¹ in which the question of “influence” tends to crop up—as if one could ever expect to be satisfied on so inherently vague an issue—because it is known that Kafka read Kleist’s stories carefully and repeatedly, and expressed deep admiration for them. The discussion tends often to focus upon minute points of style, as if in search of something like an instinctual level of writing, a level at which later writing might reproduce earlier writing without the suggestion of copying. I propose to leave...

  8. The Parting of the Ways: A Concluding Note on the Novel and Literary Studies
    (pp. 309-316)

    Who or what, exactly, is The Reader? An established institution in our civilized life, a component of our discursive practice so thoroughly ingrained in the way we read and understand that we could not communicate without it? Or a simple choice that I make every time I pick up a book, a choice that can always turn out differently?

    It is both. But if it is to be the second, if I am to dispense with The Reader, I must also be willing and able to do without a belief in the text’s identity as an aesthetic object, an object...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 317-338)
  10. Index
    (pp. 339-348)