“The Solitary Vice: Against Reading”

October 29, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

I would have read The Solitary Vice: Against Reading at some point simply because it’s a book about books.  The subtitle, however, struck me like a thrown gauntlet.  I had to know what a published author has against books.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  Indeed, we’ve seen contrarian books that purport to be against reading before:  Ruined by Reading, Everything Bad is Good for You, and How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, among others.  Mikita Brottman takes this another step by comparing reading to – gasp – masturbation.  This is emphasized by the cover photograph, and a pretty hilarious illustration in the first chapter.

Brottman describes herself from childhood through college as a complete loser who wanted to do nothing but read novels and watch horror films.  She also has a soft spot for true crime.  I confess I read this with disquiet and an uncomfortable yet strong sense of recognition.  Yep, that was me.  I do tend to disagree with her thesis that reading ruins people’s lives, though, possibly because I consider myself a news junkie first and non-fiction reader second.  I usually only read fiction as required by my book group, when it wins awards, or when it’s a new offering by one of a handful of favorite writers*.

The Solitary Vice is full of penetrating insight into why we read, and why we read particular things.  Brottman describes funny obsessive reading habits, like collecting, insisting on maintaining books in pristine condition, and keeping elaborate lists.  She offers incisive commentary on the appeal of true crime.  The chapter in defense of indulging in lowbrow culture, though, wanders off into a discussion of why we care about celebrities, and it doesn’t touch much on books. 

Brottman lambastes those who read certain “required” books to impress others rather than sticking to what they truly enjoy.  I’ve never understood this attitude particularly, because whenever I read a list of “overrated” books I typically find that I’ve enjoyed them very much.  Brottman singles out Don Quixote, War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Brothers Karamazov – all books I thought were absolutely terrific.  I use those “required” lists to point me to great books I might otherwise miss.

One of the great features of The Solitary Vice is that it has a lengthy Works Cited section in the back.  If you’re like me, you comb through these for books to add to your list – precisely in the way Brottman finds so amusing.  This is one of the reasons we know Brottman really isn’t against reading – she’s clearly never shaken her own passionate reading habits, so how could she expect us to?

I’ll go so far as to say that The Solitary Vice is a must-read.  It grabbed my attention, challenged some of my assumptions, gave me food for thought in areas that I thought I had pretty well covered, and entertained me with the inimitable sketches that illustrate it.

* Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Tom Robbins, Tana French (please Lord), Lisa Lutz, D. Daniel Judson, Steve Martin, Nick Hornby.  Okay, double handful.

1 Comment »

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  1. Oh, I loved, loved, LOVED this book and didn’t think it got nearly enough attention everywhere. They should at least make it required reading in library schools.

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