Heather Cass White, University of Alabama English professor and definitive editor of the great poet Marianne Moore, has chosen as her debut work of nonfiction a subject that was dear to Moore and will also be dear to all readers: reading itself. “Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life,” is a comparatively short book, but it’s saturated in the world, the wisdom, and the oddities of the reading experience.
It’s a well-covered subject. Scarcely a publishing season has gone by in the last 200 years that didn’t feature at least a couple of new titles along the lines of “Books Promiscuously Read:” not only discussing all the different types of reading but also, inevitably, talking about all those previous books on the subject.
White nods to this fact in the opening section of her own book, which quotes from so many previous writers about reading that the quotes almost seem to meld together into one meta-narrative of quotations (she knowingly leaves all the attributions for the back of the book). It’s a surreal and absolutely wonderful experience.
The rest of the book is likewise wonderful. White ranges across a wide spectrum of books. She touches on everything from Plato and Aristotle to the varying uses of the word “raddled” in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.” And in all these considerations, she keeps foremost in mind the peculiarly comforting magic of reading: when we step into a book, as she puts it, we engage in an elemental act of “self-claiming.”
The three main sections of White’s book deal with “Play, Transgression, and Insight:” fun reading, troublemaking reading, and what’s typically known as “deep” reading. No matter what kind you prefer, you’ll find it well-discussed in these pages.
“There is surprisingly little disagreement,” White observes at one point, “about reading’s capacity to drive us right out of your minds.” Although she cites such famous examples as Don Quixote being driven mad by reading too many Arthurian romances, all readers will be nodding a bit in recognition. We pick up a little block of pulp paper, ink, and glue (or we tap on a tiny electronic file), and suddenly we aren’t quite ourselves anymore. We change disposition and location. We slip out of time completely. Non-readers, watching this, must certainly think we’re just a bit odd.
As White puts it, “It goes like this: pick up a book and forget who you are.”
Readers tend to enjoy not just the experience of reading but also the experience of reading about reading. It lends a certain feeling of solidarity to what is, after all, necessarily an isolated activity. And as noted, there’s been no shortage of such books-about-books. “Books About Books” is a delightful addition to the most cheering sub-genre of them all.
‘Books Promiscuously Read’
By Heather Cass White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021