Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life
by Heather Cass White
Expected publication: July 6, 2021, by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
For a reader, there is nothing like delving into the pages of a good book. Reading serves as a method for traveling across time and distance, and for looking into minds and hearts radically different from our own. Books provide anything from a breezy escape from the everyday on a summer afternoon to an insightful examination of the darkest parts of human nature. Books are, as many writers have said before, a special kind of magic.
But not everyone views reading as an active or demanding activity. After all, the reader is just sitting there, staring at pieces of paper (or pixels on a screen, or listening to a narrator) instead of doing something active like housework, sports, walking the dog, or chatting with other people in the room. “What use is reading?” the non-reader asks, forcing the reader to justify their beloved activity. “Reading engages different parts of the brain”, we might say. Or, “We learn empathy by reading this novel”, or “We’re learning about this vital subject by reading the latest nonfiction book”.
Of course, these answers often feel trite to serious readers who just want to be left alone with a new book. But the doubters may have a point, as Heather Cass White points out in her new book, Books Promiscuously Read. Reading is a dangerous act. A book transmits information from one person to another to another, and there’s no knowing whose hands that book could end up in, or what sorts of ideas it could inspire. Books have led to political revolutions, galvanized movements, and upended our notions about the foundations of life as we know it.
Books are dangerous.
This is why pearl-clutchers throughout the ages have decried salacious or violent elements in books, why dictators make lists of forbidden texts, and why readers around the world and throughout history have risked their lives to get their hands on books. People want their stories, no matter what it takes to get them. Reading opens the mind to world, though the reader may not always like what they encounter. In one chapter, White discusses the writings of enslaved Black Americans who learned to read in the South, despite the laws forbidding it. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote of how his eyes were opened to lives other than his own– free lives– and that it made his own condition seem even worse in comparison. But would he have traded his nearly unbearable knowledge of the world for the ignorance of his childhood? No, he undoubtedly would not have, for his knowledge gave him the ability to rise above the level that slave-owners intended for him.
White also notes that high illiteracy rates among women in developing countries prevents those women from attaining or even advocating for gender equality, which prevents their children and successive generations from climbing out of poverty themselves. Being able to decipher marks on a page grants a reader more than just the ability to enjoy the latest bestseller. It gives them the power to understand the world around them, and from there it grants the ability to do something as simple as reading a street sign to something as complicated as learning an intricate scientific process. If knowledge is power, then the ability to read is critical.
Books Promiscuously Read is a series of thoughtful meditations about the act of reading, and how reading affects our lives. White urges us to read widely- promiscuously, even- as one can never know what new book or idea will inspire new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. If there’s a flaw in White’s approach, it’s in the books and she chooses to quote in these essays. All the passages come from classics, poetry, and literary fiction, which some- but not all- readers may recognize, but not necessarily feel drawn to. For a book that praises the act of reading and asks that readers be promiscuous in their reading tastes, acknowledging that genre fiction– mysteries, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, and especially romance– is what keeps the publishing industry alive so highbrow literary types can have their obscure novels, would not go amiss. Still, White doesn’t bemoan the existence of genre fiction and this alone sets her apart from other members of the literati who would rather have an eye put out than read the latest from Stephen King or Nora Roberts.
As passive as it might seem, reading is a dangerous activity. When we open a book, we don’t know what we’ll pick up from it. Maybe it will be nothing. Maybe it will be an idea that changes the world. It’s hard to say, but the adventure involved in finding out is worth it. For readers in need of a defense of their passion, Books Promiscuously Read provides that and more.
Thank you to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.