Sophie van der Ham

The Politics of Reading

When I was studying English literature & language, I couldn’t decide which one I loved best. Literature seemed like the easy subject because I could lie in bed all day reading and call it homework, but I couldn’t quite understand what my lecturers wanted me to write in my essay. Language seemed to be more factual and less nebulous and easier to ace in tests.

Man, have my feelings changed.

Reading, not literature, is a longstanding passion of mine. I love getting lost in new worlds, forgetting time and seeing reality through another person’s eyes. I love literature too, but that took a while. For me, the difference between literature and “ordinary” fiction is that someone decided a certain text deserved a different name. Usually, that text is more complex, has several layers of meaning and transgresses certain norms or conventions. Usually, that person who decided it’s literature is white and male. I’m not alone with my quarrel with the canon, which is that a lot of what I was taught in school was not very diverse in its protagonists or authors, but also that it often fails to engage readers who struggle with building fictional worlds block by block, letter by letter. If it’s difficult, old and has a masculine protagonist ruminating about Really Big Stuff, it must be good, right? Well, I find there’s no shame in page turners. Nicci French was my way into English texts. Surely, books that allow easy access to exciting stuff should be taught. I’m just lucky that I stuck to the hard stuff long enough to appreciate it.

Reading forces the reader to think new things and to, in some cases, completely abandon what we think is real and common. Historical fiction teaches us that societies have looked very differently depending on the people who live in them. What a lovely idea! If society is historically and culturally contingent, this offers very promising views for what we are capable of reimagining. Older texts stop us from re-inventing the wheel. As Neil Gaiman recently said, it’s also our way of communicating with the dead. Reading is what we make of it. Texts which closely match a normative identity can also reinforce the status quo for the reader. I take particular umbrage to “chick-lit” which attempts to sell supposedly female traits (woman wants man, shops for clothes, finds man, overcomes obstacle, marries him) in an attractive package of what today’s woman should be like and look like. Simplified and glossy, it’s like a fashion magazine with a bit more text. I’m not condemning anyone who wants to read it, but would urge people to think critically about it. Why is fiction aimed at women not seen to be universal, but a specific niche of a large market? Who publishes these texts, who writes them and why do they replicate normative ideas about sexuality, gender presentation and capitalist consumer culture?
Ultimately, we are overloaded with texts. I currently have 91 books on my to read list which isn’t showing any signs of going down any time soon. The selection of texts you want to read is heavily influenced by marketing, awards, and whatever is available to you. It isn’t easy to read outside the box, but possible if you seek groundbreaking stuff out.

I slowly learnt English as a child. It started when I was given my first Pokemon game for my gameboy when I was 8. It was entirely in English and I just had to figure out what the words meant without a dictionary. This often meant asking my mum, but I would also rely on context and cause and effect to figure it out. It’s an easy way to learn a language because it’s got it’s own reward system built in: figure out the text, win the game. Learning to speak the lingua franca in Europe literally opened up the world for me. I was able to communicate with strangers halfway across the planet from me on the internet. I could go to Germany and buy food in English, because people would understand me and could interact with me. Language is about community. It’s particular form is interesting to study in its own right, but never completely fixed for aiding understanding between people. We assign different meanings to words and different parts of words. A word’s meaning is not the same as its register or its connotation. These all make up the meaning, but they are also fluid and ambiguous – ask a Brit and American what the word pants mean and you will get two different answers.

This is why getting language right is important: it fundamentally influences the social reality that we abide by. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, uses the example of “tax relief” to illustrate that the framework it creates serves a conservative political purpose. By framing tax as something to be relieved of, a burden, there is no room for tax to be defined as a positive. Which it can be, since it can be used to reduce or remove tuition fees for the individual, build roads, fund vital services for vulnerable groups in society. When we talk about “sluts” (i.e. a woman who has (too much) sex according to an arbitrary and shifting standard) we see women’s sexuality as inherently negative. I hope we’ve come further than that as a society. If we take heteronormative hegemony as true, as mainstream culture suggests, we need to recognise that it takes two to have sex, and one person shouldn’t be shamed for doing the exact same thing the other person is doing. So when we want to create systems that are fairer, more democratic and just less broken, let’s start to build by reading other people’s reimaginings. Let’s open up our minds by teaching realities written by black people, women, queer people, working class people. Let’s open our eyes to perspectives that we have never considered before and start building our new reality. Reading is astutely political, so choose your texts carefully.

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