This post is a response to Simon Hay’s “Why Read Reading Lolita? Teaching Critical Thinking in a Culture of Choice.”
I’m a reader. I come from a family full of books; my father was a bookseller and rare manuscript hunter by trade, and my mom spent much of her career as an antique dealer shelving gorgeous, leather-bound classics. I grew up in a house filled to the stuffing with books, so much so that a contractor once told us our attic was in danger of caving in on the rest of the house due to the many stocked bookshelves we had. I’ve never once asked myself why I read. At the danger of sounding trite, asking why I read is akin to asking why I breathe. I’ve never had a choice—the act gives me life.
For Hay, it seems this would not be a satisfactory answer. Asking a group of literature students why they study what they do is hard, especially when Hay frames the question in such a way that giving an “acceptable” answer is near impossible. When students answer that reading literature gives us a glimpse into past lives, he believes they are calling English studies History-lite. The same can be said for each answer a would-be student could give Hay, which to me isn’t fair. Students of literature, in my experiences, come home when they study books. Books are a safe place—a place that makes sense amidst the ample chaos found in the world. Honest students of literature study their discipline because they simply have no other choice—they are held delightfully, helplessly captive by the allure of escape, understanding, and emotional connection that reading offers.
In the end, Hay concedes that it is the choice to study, not the discipline being studied, that matters. As far as I’m concerned, if it matters to you, it’s worth pursuing. If you are called to read, then read, even if someone has the gall to ask why.