The queerness of reading

“Could a country that had widely read Huckleberry Finn have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second?” David Denby asks in a piece called “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” My response: has anyone who’s read Huckleberry Finn not laughed when reading about the Duke and Dauphin? These acolytes love Mark Twain’s creations, two phonies who pretend to be French nobility and manage to fool many yokels along the Mississippi. Spotting phonies doesn’t mean you can’t take them seriously. Recognition isn’t repudiation (look at the critical responses to the nattering, distracted recent albums of Kanye, who doesn’t disavow his repulsiveness).

I see plenty of parents reading to children in bookstores and libraries. What “plenty” means depends on one’s optimism. The number of kids who read for pleasure wasn’t high when Ike ruled the Western Hemisphere and Mailer, Bellow, Vidal, etc. the Book of the Month Club, as Denby acknowledges. “Few late teen-agers are reading many books,” he claims as if it’s an insight. Every week I read the handiwork of students whose concept of sentence writing originates in the twaddle of standardized test instructions. They remember, deservedly, nothing about high school English except the impossibility of starting sentences with “because” or with coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “but” (the birth of “due to” and, horrors, “due to the fact that,” by the way; in their teachers’ eyes torture ’tis a far, far nobler thing than death). Whether it’s the TV or the iPhone technology gets the blame for systems that keep students docile. But the couple of students per section who demonstrate an interest in structure, climax, lacuna, and tension happen to be the readers. They may not sense the correlation — that’s my job.

But let me develop one of Denby’s themes. Long before I became aware of my sexuality I knew I was queer. Reading cleaved me from my friends. Not because it encouraged isolation — far from it. Books strengthened my interest in people. I craved relationships that matched the tension and ardor in my favorite novels and poems. No relationship in my life remains as monogamous, “fulfilling” in that crap pop psychology manner, and stable as that with my books. If a bond exists between me and friends, family, and lovers, I credit what novels have taught me. Make no mistake: reading cultivates what Harold Bloom called a ruthless interiority: a sense of self into which one can burrow, headily and sometimes dangerously. Reading doesn’t make one a Better Person: it forced me to confront squalor and my own cowardice. There is the paradox: by reminding us of our ourselves, reading demonstrates the comity between people.

As the act of reading, thanks to Kindle and iPhones, becomes what Chekhov calls “one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know,” the essential mystery — the privacy — of the union between book and reader remains an enigma, and thus it should remain. At best it provokes good-natured amusement, as when colleagues on intercampus shuttle ride remind me, for the hundredth time, how “admirable” reading at eight in the morning is, especially when I could be sleeping or looking out the window (Florida is a flat place). But every time I feel the nudge from one of these sweet, genuinely curious people I shudder, slightly, reminded of the frowns and — yes — unintended condescension from teachers and relatives who at one hand praised reading as a A Good Thing yet sought to contain it, as if I carried an airborne contagion.

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