In the world of today, our individual worth in society is measured in output, in productivity, in competences. Reading as a slow, inward and undirected activity is therefore its own act of resistance against and within a neoliberal agenda.
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight! Here you are, in an unspecified time, most likely coffee in hand (or beer … is it that late?), procrastinating from something else. If you are anything like the people that I know – an annoyingly privileged segment recently graduated from university – you have most likely been spending the day, or will be spending the day, looking for a job, working at your job, worrying about jobs.
For despite that prestigious and profound university degree in which you have grappled with Foucault, with Arendt, with Said, with the very depths of human existence, we live in an age in which our individual worth in society is measured in output, in productivity, in competences – basically in how we translate our knowledge into economic value. In an age like this, it is important to find small pockets of resistance in which we can to hold on to our beliefs about the worth of a human.
I therefore want to put forward the idea that reading is its own act of resistance against and within a neoliberal agenda. That the act of reading is contrary to the direct goals of the political and economic establishment, which seeks to make us spend our every hour in pursuit of material and economic growth. Reading produces growth, but a different kind.
Reading, as it is construed today, is an inward act. We sit quietly in corners and let words pass through our minds. It is a slow activity. There is no hurry in reading and no end to get to, except the end of the book itself. Thus the process of reading is more important than its results. You can finish the book, or you can not, though of course there is the satisfaction of placing a newly read book on your shelf for all to see. Literary love doesn’t preclude vanity. One of the great regrets of my 20s is never having bought or built an adequate bookcase. How I look myself in the mirror every morning is a mystery.
In a material sense, reading does not make you richer, or anyone else richer (except of course Amazon. Somehow they always end up with the money.)
Reading is unproductive in an economic sense. Though reading has transformative powers, they are mostly internal, and resist easy commodification as cultural capital. In a material sense, reading does not make you richer, or anyone else richer (except of course Amazon. Somehow they always end up with the money.) I recently spent a whole week in my bed, reading Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I think I literally went out of my house maybe three times. Washing dishes and my hair all of a sudden became extremely irrelevant. By the end of the week, I emerged dazed and realized I had had the most unproductive and most exciting week for quite a while.
Reading is also undirected. There is no clear goal with reading or a direct reward, no competences to acquire or things to learn. How annoying this behavior is to a “classical” economist, to which the human is a rational being out to optimize her wealth and potential at every moment. The results of reading are inconveniently unpredictable.
Of course, reading is still condoned as a generally good practice in a person’s life, just as vacations and welfare make for better workers and education for better citizens. But these things (reading, vacations, welfare, education) are placed as auxiliaries to life, things to help us along in the real world where money is made and goals are pursued. The desire is that you “have read, “have been educated”, “are well rested” so that you are in the optimal state for efficiency. Reading, being an always incomplete process, resists this.
I therefore want to place reading as the center of experience, not as an auxiliary to our real lives but as essential to these lives as our jobs and our friends and our family. Reading is, of course, an enormous privilege foisted on the literate, the wealthy, the cultural connoisseurs. But let us use this privilege politically, let us, in our reading, let go of the logics guiding every other part of our day, and be unproductive, inefficient, useless. And completely, completely worthy.