Books on Books (2003) by Jonathan Wolstenholme/Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
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Living life by the book: why reading isn't always good for you

Somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading – the ideal diet being Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, plus the odd modernist – will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. But is that true?

The Unexpected Professor: an Oxford Life in Books
John Carey
Faber & Faber, 353pp, £18.99

Reading and the Reader
Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 147pp, £12.99

Why I Read: the Serious Pleasure of Books
Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 226pp, £17.99

The Road to Middlemarch: My Life With George Eliot
Rebecca Mead
Granta Books, 296pp, £16.99

There is a series of postcards by the Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte that applies the alarmist tone usually reserved for smoking to scenes of people reading. A sunbathing woman is going purple and the caption, set in black on white with a black border, says: “Reading causes ageing of the skin.” In other scenarios a man ignores the naked woman lying beside him (“Reading may reduce the blood flow and cause impotence”) and a mother pours huge quantities of salt into a meal (“Reading seriously harms you and others around you”). What makes the cartoons so flat and pointless, apart from Swarte’s winsome draftsmanship, is their apparent belief that the benevolence of reading is a stable fact, ripe for comic inversion, rather than a social attitude that we are free to dispute. It is the same ostensive irony that underpins George Orwell’s exercise in amateur accountancy, “Books v Cigarettes”.

Still, you can see where Swarte’s confusion came from. Reading has the best PR team in the business. Or perhaps it’s just that devoted readers have better access to the language of advocacy and celebration than chain-smokers or, say, power-ballad enthusiasts. Either way, somewhere along the line, an orthodoxy hardened: cigarettes will kill you and Bon Jovi will give you a migraine, but reading – the ideal diet being Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, plus the odd modernist – will make you healthier, stronger, kinder. With the foundation of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous in 1976, reading became the last thing you can never do too often. Even the much-made argument that works of literature – Northanger Abbey, Madame Bovary – insist on the dangers of literature redounds to literature’s benefit, and provides yet another reason for reading.

But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul. Shakespeare, most canonical of all, became a magnet for 1980s iconoclasts, who disparaged him as an imperial stooge (post-colonial theory), a tool of national power (cultural materialism) and a product of the same social/ideological energies as such putatively non-literary texts as James I’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (new historicism). Conducted for the most part in postgraduate seminar rooms and the pages of academic texts (the collection Political Shakespeare being perhaps the best-known English example), the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision.

At the turn of the 21st century, with the debate dying off and the future uncertain, Harold Bloom, in How to Read and Why, and Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare’s Language, tried to reassert the old agenda by teaching lessons that had been standard in their youth but had faded amid the chatter.

The project has since split in two, with reading primers teaching us “how” to read and reading memoirs providing testimony as to “why”, both in positive rather than implicitly combative terms. There is no longer any need to write “in defence of” reading, or, if there is, the defence is against forces such as “distraction” and “technology” that are indifferent to reading literature, not actively ranged against it. Even those memoirs that hinge on grisly challenges – a book a day (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) or all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics (The Whole Five Feet) – make no reference to “book addiction” or “hyper-literacy”. If a downside emerges, it does so between the lines.

In the penultimate sentence of his new book, John Carey says that reading “is freedom”, yet he provides more than enough evidence to the contrary. The Unexpected Professor is an autobiography (postwar austerity, grammar school, national service, Oxford, Oxford, Oxford) that doubles as a “selective and opinionated” history of English literature, and a glories-of-reading memoir that doubles as an anti-reading memoir. Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them – typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth – and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?

Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away”. But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library . . . and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets). Even Wordsworth, who showed that reading can spoil you for experience, is read “as a kind of atonement”, in a “microscopically printed” edition that proves “not exactly an On-First-Looking-into-Chapman’s-Homer experience”. Once he had squinted his way through English literature, Carey was free to gorge on European novels, yet even that sounds like a mixed experience. Dostoevsky he found “hard going” and though there were other writers he enjoyed a good deal more – Zola, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann – he still “forced myself to make notes on the endpapers”. If there’s any enlivening going on, it’s not being enacted on life by literature but the other way around: playing cricket at other schools “made me understand better that bit in the Book of Numbers where the Israelites send out spies to size up the opposition . . .”

In What Good Are the Arts?, Carey wrote that the non-literary arts are “locked in inarticulacy”. But literature, in his version, is locked in articulacy, forever making pronouncements and cases and claims. His lifetime of reading, as recounted in this book, has given him nothing, other than the occasional ringing phrase, that he could not have found in some form of pamphlet. In Carey’s account, reading provides an opportunity to engage with writers who share your convictions and to reject the ones who don’t: Milton’s anti-royalism “put me on his side”, “what I liked most fiercely was Jonson’s exposure of rampaging luxury”, “What The Faerie Queene does is mythicise political power, attributing supernatural status to a dictatorial regime, and this makes it, at heart, crass and false”. A telling example of Carey’s picture of literature-as-logic comes when he quotes a well-known passage from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, a reflection on “that element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

Although this is the passage Carey uses to support his view of Eliot as “the most intelligent of English novelists”, all he says is that she “is unusual in using poetry in the service of thinking . . . The tenderness of the heartbeat and the shock of the roar would be marvellous simply as a poetic moment. But it is also part of an argument.”

It comes down to a vision of language and how it relates to ideas. Carey writes that D H Lawrence “tries to make us see that, if he could, he’d communicate in some other way, freed from the limitations of thought”. But for Philip Davis, in his treatise-like Reading and the Reader, literature allows just such freedom. According to Davis, Eliot is not putting poetry to the service of “thinking”, in Carey’s op-ed sense of the word, but doing the kind of not-quite-thinking enabled by literary language. “Try counting the thoughts in a powerful paragraph in a realist novel,” he writes, after quoting the same passage from Middlemarch: “they are no longer separate units.” Earlier in the book he asserts that, “at its deepest”, an idea possesses more than “just a statable content”.

Carey is blithely confident about the meaning of literary texts but in the past has dismissed efforts to bring aesthetic response into the realm of scientific knowledge. Davis, by contrast, surrenders to literature’s indeterminacy but believes that its impact shows up on a brain scan. He quotes the example of cognitive scientists, his collaborators at the centre for reading research that he runs at the University of Liverpool, who have demonstrated “how a dramatically compressed Shakespearean coinage such as ‘this old man godded me’ excites the brain in a way that ‘this old man deified me’ . . . does not”. Davis claims that science shows “how” a Shakespearean coinage does this – but how literature achieves the effect is exactly what resists not just scientific decoding, but verbal description. “I cannot just talk about reading,” he writes, “when that is precisely not what I shall claim to be a literary way of thinking” (as if a vet used only man-made tools).

One result of Davis’s aversion to the general is a certain overexuberance with regard to quotations. He is constantly offering “a different instance”. When he writes “I can think of a hundred examples . . .” you are justified in fearing he will list them. Shakespeare is likened to “existential physics” and “process philosophy”, and a Shakespearean allusion renders a nonsensical proposition more nonsensical still: “In the readiness of all, the words themselves seem ready when they do come.” Equally forbidding though no more instructive is the sentence that begins: “It is fashionable to talk, after Csikszentmihalyi, of being ‘in the flow’ . . .” Though Davis has none of Carey’s semi-conscious misgivings about reading, he unwittingly exposes one of its greatest dangers. Biron, attacking study at the start of Love’s Labour’s Lost, claims that “light seeking light doth light of light beguile” (in which “light” means respectively the mind, enlightenment, sight and eyes). It might be said that Davis has read too much to write a readable book about reading.

However, Davis’s idea of what literature uniquely offers to the reader is a powerful one, and is shared to some extent by Wendy Lesser, the essayist and literary editor, in her warmer but no less erudite or sophisticated Why I Read, a tribute to what she calls “the serious pleasure of books”. Just as Davis likes writing in which language is used “as a sign of approximation to point to more than itself”, so Lesser admires writers who meet our desire for order “only halfway” (Eça de Queiroz) or give us “only a small part of what is really there” (Penelope Fitzgerald). But Lesser differs from Davis and also from Carey in taking a degree of responsibility: literature is grounded in the capricious reader, not in the permanent present of the text. Carey first read War and Peace in the 1960s but if his feelings about it have changed, he doesn’t tell us, whereas Lesser explains how it overtook Anna Karenina in her affections. And the reader’s shimmying perspective – the reader as human being – is treated as a topic in its own right by the journalist Rebecca Mead in The Road to Middlemarch, in which she traces how a novel that once gratified her teenage “aspirations to maturity and learnedness” has become “a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade”.

Lesser and Mead treat the reader to a more attractive vision of reading, no less valuable for being far less dutiful, no less “salutary” for accommodating the kinds of pleasures that Lesser describes as “cellulose-based”. Carey’s distinctions between learning and having fun, between life and literature, are cleanly resolved. Just as reading the classics is not slog-work, so the library is not the unreal or anti-real world. “The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.” Without making the connection, she promotes a similarly unhermetic vision of her engagement with literature, which is not, she writes, just “a form of escapism” but a first-hand mode of existence – as Dickens more than implied when he wrote that reading Eliot’s Adam Bede had taken its place “among the actual experiences and endurances of my life”. When you are “grasped” by a book, Mead argues, “reading . . . feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself”. And you can do it while you smoke.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity