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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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.


It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.


Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.


This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism