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The cover of Books Promiscuously Read by Heather Cass White (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021; image courtesy the publisher)

“Reading for pleasure” is a phrase that can seem overly insistent, possibly redundant. Does such a distinction really need to be made?, the keen reader wonders. Yet today, reading is often regulated, sapped of its generative potential. Business schools offer courses on “literature for leadership,” positing reading as an instrument of corporate fealty. Goodreads — a platform run by Amazon — incentivizes readers to become users of literature (how you read is less important than how much you read) and to be used by algorithms themselves. And the parameters for acceptable reading habits now seem slimmer than ever. Books — and even whole genres — have been deemed worthless or inexpedient, banished to the back alleys of culture. If once books once offered readers access to the public sphere, articles, read in bulk and usually on phone screens, have now eclipsed them. Is reading truly ours to claim anymore — or have our shadowy spaces of private interrogation been converted into floodlit stadiums, where we’re exposed to the scrutiny of surveilling conglomerates and buffeted by endless online chatter?

It shouldn’t be so, argues Heather Cass White, a professor of English at the University of Alabama, in her new monograph-slash-encomium to reading, Books Promiscuously Read. “Our path toward books […] is not for anyone else to dictate,” Cass White writes. “It is not even for us to understand” — an incendiary take, given that a desire to read can seem inseparable from a desire to understand. Books Promiscuously Read crackles with such against-the-grain judgments. We tend to segregate reading to the evening: why, Cass White asks, should we mete out this reward so late in the day? Why view books as conduits of self-improvement and not tools for a kind of useful surrender: a “chosen relinquishment of power” that thrusts us into unfamiliar spaces, which we must then trawl by instinct?

In Cass White’s hands, reading is less a discrete action than a hall of mirrors — promising glimmers of recognition, but prone to lead one astray. Through three sections, “Play,” “Transgression,” and “Insight,” and examples from Frederick Douglass to Elizabeth Bishop, we see readers acting dangerously — Douglass, forbidden to read while enslaved, learns nonetheless — and stumbling down winding paths: Bishop’s poems evince that “reading is picking up a line and following it.”

Apart from her knack for syntax — her aphorisms are as fine as cut-glass — Cass White draws on an impressive array of sources. Marquee names like Cervantes and Mary Shelley appear alongside unsung literary heroes like the poet Thylias Moss. Bucking academic convention, Cass White attributes many of her quotations only at the end of the book, which allows her to interface more directly with her invisible interlocutors. This is, after all, what reading itself enables: a commingling of reader and author, distinct voices suddenly aligned. As Cass White reminds us, we hear ourselves when we read, but we are also hearing someone else’s words.

Reading is a form of alchemy, in the end, and so much of what occurs between ourselves and the page cannot be satisfactorily explained. But by insisting on reading’s strangeness, its sublime power and necessity, Books Promiscuously Read restores to readers the freedom to pursue pleasure over profit — to read widely, wildly, and wholly on one’s own terms.

Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), by Heather Cass White, is now available on Bookshop.

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Sara Krolewski

Sara Krolewski’s criticism has appeared in Bookforum, Cabinet Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

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