Are You Really Free to Read?

A row of booksI have a book problem. Having built a whole wall of bookshelves recently, and filled much of that space with books we already owned, perhaps I should say that I have a bookshelf problem. My family and I enjoy collecting books, often searching at thrift stores for treasures that others have discarded. We have found a range of works, including works by nineteenth and early twentieth century authors whom we deeply appreciate but would never have found browsing at Barnes and Noble or perusing the suggestions on Amazon. These book-buying endeavors reinforced our experiences browsing bookstores in India and Singapore that also led us to gems not commonly available or even known in the United States.

These constraints on what books any of us find arise from multiple systems of production and distribution. Recognizing these systems and the limits that they impose provides a counter to the image that Sonya Chung generates in her suggestions about choosing what book to read next. She writes,

Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature.  School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.

And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms.  An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished.  By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these.  You.  At this moment in time.

Her notion of the independent self ignores the systems of constraints in which we all live. Of course, you can choose to read whatever attracts your attention at that moment, but what can attract your attention is always already limited by these multiple systems. Whether you peruse the shelves at an independent bookstore, your local library, or the virtual shelves on Goodreads or Amazon (determined by those controlling online algorithms), the choices of so many, from corporate executives, editors and computers to librarians or friends whose recommendations you appreciate, constrain your options before you have a chance to choose. You can work diligently to expand those choices, spending hours pouring through the bins at a thrift store or the used book listings on ABE Books, but your options remain constrained by the various choices of others. What books did someone choose to publish, then purchase, and finally resell or donate.

So Chung’s admonition to know yourself and “read what you want and when you want” naturalizes these diverse systems that determine what our choices can be, what we can even know to want. And of course these restrictive structures extend well beyond our choice of books and even our consumption more generally. The systems around us and over us produce our choices and even much of our lives. The language of the independent self, though, is quite useful. It often makes us feel better and freer about our lives, and it keeps us from recognizing and challenging the less obvious of these systemic constraints and those who benefit from them.

 Photo credit “Bookshelves at Russell Books” by Germán Poo-Caamaño via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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