The dubious virtue of reading

In Martin Amis’s confusing, fractured, and fascinating 1995 novel The Information, the failed and embittered literary novelist Richard Tull engages a criminal tough named Scozzy, a self-made street intellectual of sorts who reads voraciously to give himself an edge, in between breaking people’s knees.

Tull hires Scozzy to help him produce some theater of revenge directed toward Tull’s best friend, a suddenly successful celebrity novelist who, in Tull’s opinion, sucks. The plan goes awry and what was meant to be a harmless spectacle of menace turns into violent and ultimately incomprehensible chaos. Nobody seems to understand anything that happens in the last 100 pages of this novel, for which Amis took some heat.

But there’s a passing moment in which the expensively educated, decadent and addicted Richard Tull learns about the lean-and-mean Scozzy’s assiduous reading for self-betterment. I am paraphrasing across the decades here, but Tull says to Scozzy, essentially, it must be kind of sad, kind of pathetic, reading books just for what they’ll “do for you,” not for the pleasures of the text.

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I was brought up to believe unquestioningly that reading was healthy, good for you like spinach,  and virtuous. I now see reading as entirely neutral, the absurd claims of its inherent powers little more than middle-class social-mobility propaganda, as well as a puritanical reaction against the rise of electronic media in mid-century.

The virtue of reading may be why I never really became a reader. These days, I see it a little more like Richard Tull, the fallen aesthete, did. Most writing is no better than and no different from a soap opera, but the good stuff is a drug. Not everyone can afford to languish in it all day. It doesn’t make you better. It makes you high. Reading is unproductive, defiant, and the very picture of self-involved and selfish.

I like it much better now.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

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