Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?
Since the internet has made the entire world a library with no exits or supervisors, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response.
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Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. What you’re reading now, for instance, is an essay—not an op-ed, a chapter, or a blog post. I’ll spare you the customary French translation here and simply note that I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone—including yourself, if you write them—think deeply, out loud. To me, the signal pleasure of reading is finding partial answers to the question I have about everyone I encounter: What is it like inside your brain? I am incorrigibly nosy, and reading essays is a socially acceptable outlet for it.
Essays worthy of the name—i.e., distinct from diaries, journals, op-eds, and other forms with lower expectations for depth—have a certain quality that Virginia Woolf identified as belonging “to life and to life alone. You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more than friendship is ended because it is time to part. Life wells up and alters and adds.” In the opening essay of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts describes a similar quality in Woolf: The ideas in A Room of One’s Own, he writes, “are, in fact, few and fairly obvious—at least from our historical vantage. Yet the thinking, the presence of animate thought on the page, is striking.”
I like the phrase “the presence of animate thought on the page” enough that I’m going to pretend I didn’t just see him call Virginia Woolf basic.
“Even things in a book-case change if they are alive; we find ourselves wanting to meet them again; we find them altered,” writes Woolf. I’ve spent much of the last week reading Joan Didion precisely because she’s no longer alive, and yet, there she is on the page, vibrant and much altered since last we met. Woolf too. Every writer I’ve ever loved is immortal in this way, especially since most were never alive to me in any real sense to begin with—either dead before I was born or existing in a context utterly remote from mine. Because I never met Joan Didion, she remains as alive to me as she’s always been. There are people entitled to mourn her, to whom I offer my sincere condolences, but I am one of the fortunate millions whose long-term relationship with Didion remains essentially unchanged.
We used to understand this, I think. (“Who’s we?” the careful reader should always ask, following a sentence like that. But like most questions, it is one you could always ask yourself, quietly, while looking for answers elsewhere in the text. Reading!) But social media has tilted things so that books by contemporary authors—let alone essays—are no longer portable worlds that awaken when a reader enters and slumber when one leaves. Today, the author is not dead until the author is actually dead. In the meantime, every published piece of writing is treated as the beginning of a conversation—or worse, a workshop piece—by some readers, each of whom feels entitled to a bespoke response. What did you mean by that? Is this supposed to be funny? Did you even consider X? Why didn’t you do this thing the way I would have done it, instead? I’m writing an essay on your book for my high school class—do you have fifteen minutes for an interview about the key themes?
They tweet these things, they email them, they reply in comments, they blog about them and snitch-tag the author. There is no apparent awareness that, in writing a piece and publishing it, the author has said what they meant to say and turned the project of thinking about it over to the reader. Today’s reader will simply not accept the baton being passed. If something is unclear, the author must expand; if something offends, the author must account and atone. Simple disagreement triggers some cousin of cognitive dissonance, where the reader’s brain scrambles to forcibly reconcile beliefs that don’t actually contradict each other.
A thought like, “Joan Didion was a master prose stylist and brilliant thinker who said some real bullshit about feminism” cannot stand. Was she great, or was she sometimes wrong? Do I love her writing, or do I occasionally not care for it? Which is it, dammit? Authorial worthiness is zero-sum.
I am an old woman yelling at a cloud. I know this. You want a head trip, try being in your 40s, writing an essay about how nobody knows how to read anymore, and picking up The Gutenberg Elegies, written by a man in his 40s about how people don’t know how to read anymore—only to realize the college students who inspired his lament were (presumably, still are) exactly your age.
“What emerged was this,” writes Birkerts of my cohort, following a disastrous class in which they decline to engage seriously with a Henry James short story:
“That they were not, with a few exceptions, readers—never had been; that they had always occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; that they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed ‘pretentious’; that they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and that they were put off by ironic tone because it flaunted superiority and made them feel that they were missing something. The list is partial.”
On the other hand, it’s possible assigning a Henry James story in which an older, upper-class, 19th-century man reflects on the fate of his dead friend’s butler was not the best move to engage a bunch of middle-class American teenagers 100 years later.
I just read the story in question, “Brooksmith,” for the first time, and I certainly can see its appeal as a teaching text. The narrator believes he’s telling us the tragic story of a butler “spoiled” by frequent interactions with visitors of a higher class, while unwittingly telling a different story about himself: a man who congratulates himself for befriending a mere servant, but at no point lifts a finger to help his increasingly desperate “friend.” The satire of a privileged twit is dry and delicious.
But I say that as someone who’s nearly 47 and has read a lot more 19th-century fiction than I had 30 years ago. As a college freshman in 1992, I would have been just like Birkerts’s students, complaining “I couldn’t get into it” and therefore didn’t get it. So many little things I didn’t know yet—what a “salon” for fancy 1890s English people would even look like; the meaning of “parterre” and “casaque”; why it might be perceived as humiliating for a former butler to run a shop or wait tables in a restaurant—would have been stumbling blocks that made the reading far more difficult. And in this case, the payoff (“Ho ho, this guy is awful and doesn’t even know it! Dang, now I’m really sad for Brooksmith”) wouldn’t have seemed worth the struggle.
By contrast, I loved reading even earlier works like The Scarlet Letter and The Mill on the Floss my freshman year, because characters closer to my age, going through big, dramatic events, provided a cleaner entry into unfamiliar diction and syntax, carried over pages of baggy Victorian digressions. I wasn’t “uncomfortable with any deviations from straight plot,” but I did appreciate a little plot here and there, as a sort of handrail.
When I adopted my first puppy after a series of older rescue dogs, I understood that he was extremely new to Planet Earth, yet I was somehow still surprised by how much he had to learn. Wait, dogs aren’t born knowing that patting your leg means “Come here” and patting the couch means “Join me”? Stairs are a thing that needs to be explained? When you’ve done graduate work in literature, and then aged a couple decades, it’s easy to forget that college freshmen approaching new texts are basically the human version of that.
I entered college as a lifelong avid reader, encouraged by excellent teachers and librarians, and I still didn’t really know anything, because I’d only existed for 17 years. A lot of that time was spent just learning how to manage my body in space and behave in a culturally appropriate manner (saying “please” and “thank you,” starting with the outside fork, being a good sport about casual misogyny, etc.). So even now, in the middle of my own essay about how people don’t know how to read anymore, I find myself crying back across three decades of further rapid changes to the written word: Throw ’em a fuckin’ bone, Sven! They’re just babies!
Birkerts is hardly insensible to this point; in the very next essay, he reflects on his youth, acknowledging both that he was “an interested, eager, but not terribly precocious reader … no Sontag knocking back nutritive classics while still in grade school” (hard same) and that he’s only “gradually become interested in lives that are utterly different from [his] own.” Later, in “The Shadow Life of Reading,” he writes of “a kind of sedimentary layer of insights and impressions” each reader accrues over time, adding context and detail to each subsequent reading experience. Reading is, after all, a matter of decoding symbols in a way that makes them meaningful to the reader, which ideally approximates—but can never identically reproduce—the way they were meaningful to the writer who coded them. Someone just stepping into adulthood in 1992, like a puppy sussing out whether it’s safe to cross from rug to hardwood, could not be expected to decipher all the code Henry James laid down a century earlier.
This is why we humans have a long tradition of teaching literature—in other words, how to read closely and think deeply—instead of just turning our young loose in a library and hoping for the best. Those of us who love books learn as much as we can and pass that accumulated wisdom along to students who mostly do not give a shit. ’Twas ever thus. But along the way, we create a chain of language lovers and nosy parkers that links us—you, me, Birkerts, Didion, Woolf, James, all of us—through time all the way back to Gutenberg; before him to handwritten letters, stone tablets, and the oral tradition; before that to the best crafted series of grunts; all of which makes death seem a little less terrifying, a little less final.
The internet has made the entire world a library with no exits and no supervisors.
Heather Havrilesky loves her husband, you numbskulls.
Last week, the humor writer and longtime advice columnist at The Cut published an essay, “Marriage Requires Amnesia”—an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage—in the New York Times. This led to an inexplicably angry Twitter fight among readers about whether she should leave her marriage. (Or whether her husband, wronged by this shocking display of dirty laundry, should leave her.) The argument for dissolving Havrilesky’s marriage is that she said, in so many words, she hates her husband. In The New York Times! Can you imagine? Surely, there could be no clearer signal that a relationship is over.
The argument against: Oh my god. Irony exists. Hyperbole exists. Please get better at reading.
Havrilesky loves her husband, Joe Biden won the election, Covid-19 is not just a cold, the Omicron variant is bananas contagious, vaccines are safe and effective, climate change is real, the fascist threat we face is not coming from the left, Aristotle was not Belgian, the central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself,” etc. Not everything the internet treats as ambiguous actually is. Texts generally do contain evidence that certain interpretations are more valid than others. .
Not that the whole text of Havrilesky’s essay has much to do with the outrage it generated. As far as I can tell, the majority of people complaining didn’t make it past the line “Do I hate my husband? Oh for sure, yes, definitely,” which serves as the piece’s subhead.
Disclosure, before I go on: I’ve internet-known Heather since we both wrote for Salon, which I started doing in 2008. More relevant to this discussion, though, is that I was a fan of hers for years before that, going back to Suck.com and Rabbit Blog. The sedimentary layer of reading deposits in my head includes 20-plus years’ worth of Heather Havrilesky, which means I have certain expectations when I see her name.
The piece will be long. It will meander but never lose me. I will find it hilarious, while knowing not everyone would, because it will contain outrageously hyperbolic “confessions” about what a “terrible” person she is. But the exaggerated self-incrimination is mostly there to skim some embarrassing earnestness off the top of what she’s actually come to say, which is usually something tender, wise, and kind. A soft, anxiously beating heart will always be nestled inside the confident bluster of her voice. A piece that begins with the author “hating” her husband, for example, will end with, “In spite of everything, he’s still my favorite person.”
And then the internet will scream in response, “If you hate your husband, just get a fucking divorce!” because the internet is really bad at reading.
At Defector, Albert Burneko went long on how upsetting he found “this terrible, ridiculous piece of writing” (which he characterizes as a “blog,” despite its clearly being labeled as a book excerpt). The basis of his rant, as far as I can tell, is his presumption that Havrilesky’s husband, Bill, must feel humiliated by “Marriage Requires Amnesia.”
I’m not grasping at subtext here. “He would have to be an absolute nightmare of a husband to deserve the humiliation of being aired out in personal terms in the New York Times by the very person he vowed to honor and cherish forever,” Burneko writes. Elsewhere, he wonders “how profoundly my wife would have to have wronged me, how galactically and intractably miserable in my marriage I would have to be, before I could even consider doing this to her—taking to the pages of the New York Times to savage everything about her …”
Back in 2008-2010, when Havrilesky and I were both writing for Salon’s feminist blog, “Broadsheet,” the lightly moderated comment section was just what you’d expect from that time and place: a bunch of misogynists taking a break from MRA/PUA Subreddits to harass some professional lady writers. (We called ourselves “ladies” back then, at first ironically and then just habitually, until younger people started identifying it as an old-person thing, and we stopped but got old anyway.) I no longer recall what I wrote about my spouse, Al, that occasioned it, but one day an angry man hissed at one of my posts: “Your husband must be so embarrassed.”
“Honey,” I called out to said husband after I read it. “Come look! The boys are talking about you!”
He read the comment, laughed, and asked my permission to respond—not because we have the kind of relationship where he needs my permission to do a damned thing, but because he knew and supported my policy of not responding to trolls. This guy had come into my workplace to stir shit, not his. He would respect how I wanted to handle it.
“Go nuts,” I said.
“The only thing I like better than my wife having strong opinions,” Al wrote back, “is that she gets paid for them.”
So my first thought reading Burneko’s screed was, “Oh my god, this is 2,500 words of ‘Your husband must be so embarrassed.’” My second thought was, the meat of his post—about how no marriage or person is perfect, sure, but he loves his wife very much and doesn’t actually find it hard to stay married—is strikingly similar to Havrilesky’s actual thesis in “Marriage Requires Amnesia.”
If you ignore all her artistic and rhetorical choices in favor of an arbitrarily literal reading, then sure, it’s a piece about a woman who hates her husband and hates being married (at least until the end, when she says the exact opposite). But if you trust the author to do her job, and you do yours as a reader, you’ll find a love letter to Bill—and to marriage itself—within all the irony and exaggeration.
I’m pretty sure you don’t need to be a 20-year fan with a Ph.D. to see that. You just need to operate on the premise that the author knows what she’s doing. So often, that seems to be the problem when women write.
When married, straight women write, do people really not understand that our husbands have met us? That they are aware when we publish things and have often even read those things in advance? That their being the men we chose to marry suggests they have personalities, senses of humor, egos, and privacy needs compatible with ours?
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion tells the story of publishing her first column for Life magazine, which included the line, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”
It was a joke, of course. But when they returned to New York from Hawaii, people started asking in hushed tones if John had been aware that bombshell was coming. How did he feel? Did he know?
“Did he know I was writing it?” she writes, decades later, grieving her beloved husband of 39 years:
“He edited it.
He took Quintana to the Honolulu Zoo so I could rewrite it.
He drove me to the Western Union office in downtown Honolulu so I could file it.
At the Western Union office he wrote REGARDS, DIDION at the end of it.”
To presume a writer’s spouse would be humiliated by a piece like Havrilesky’s requires a whole other series of ungenerous assumptions about both people involved:
- That the piece was written in secret;
- That its primary purpose is to advance a controversial argument;
- That the narrator of a personal essay is identical to the author, as opposed to a funhouse reflection of certain aspects of her;
- That a line like, “I have evolved, unlike my spouse. I am so good, so thoughtful, so generous” is genuine delusional narcissism, as opposed to the comedic set-up for a scene where she blows her stack in a distinctly unevolved way;
- That no amount of signposting irony is ever enough; if one person takes it literally, then the writer has failed.
- That the writer is not an expert in her craft, making considered decisions about language and tone, but a novice out of her depth—even when she’s a middle-aged professional with a long publication history, and you’re reading an excerpt from her next book in the Times.
That’s what makes all the “get divorced” and “get therapy” responses a matter of bad reading, not just subjective interpretation of an ambiguous text. If you think about it for one second, if you ask yourself the most fundamental question of textual analysis—“Does this interpretation make any fucking sense at all?”—you immediately see that this cannot actually be an essay by a woman who despises her partner. For one thing, a woman who wants to publish a straightforwardly narcissistic hit piece on her own husband is going to end up somewhere like the Daily Mail, not the Times. (And I say that as someone who yells about the Times’ crumbling standards at least three times a week.)
“Do I hate my husband? Oh, for sure, yes, definitely.”
Look at those words and ask yourself whether they sound like they’re meant to be taken literally. If it helps, compare them to the following:
- “Do I hate my husband? God help me, I do.”
- “Do I hate my husband? How honest do you want me to be?”
- “Do I hate my husband? I don’t want to talk about it.”
You can see it, can’t you, the difference? The way one of those alternatives smacks of guilty confession, one of resentment ready to boil over, one of anger too large to own—while “Oh, for sure, yes, definitely” smacks more of that Jennifer Lawrence thumbs-up GIF? How saying it three different ways doesn’t really suggest emphasis so much as playfully protesting too much? How each affirmative in the series offers a new opportunity to pick up on the irony? Hell, if you’re over a certain age, you’ll also recall that a sarcastic “For sure” was one of the most devastating retorts an ’80s teen could deliver.
In other words, if you read for anything, anything at all besides social-media yelling fodder, you can see Havrilesky did everything short of hyperlink that line to a static page that says, “I’M FUCKING JOKING I LOVE HIM SO MUCH” in blinking neon.
“I remember why I chose him. In spite of everything, he’s still my favorite person,” she concludes, in the same piece that prompted half the internet to ask if Bill needs a good divorce lawyer. That’s no Shiv Roy–style “I may not love you, but I do love you.” It is, quite literally, a declaration that she thinks there’s no one better on Earth. It’s just deliberately understated, in direct contrast to the hyperbolic way she discussed his flaws (and, it bears repeating, her own).
And that’s not a function of withholding bitchiness; it’s a function of craft. It’s a point and counterpoint. The drastic shift in tone tells you that now—not before, when I was rambling and exaggerating and affecting a heightened comedic voice, but now—you need to pay attention: He’s my favorite person.
“For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist,” writes Woolf. “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.”
In the age of social media, it’s everybody’s problem.
Heather Havrilesky, who very much knows how to write, confronts it with dark humor and hyperbole. I juxtapose five-dollar words with “fuck” and “shit,” so everybody knows I’m smart but also hate myself for caring if anybody knows I’m smart. We all have our thing.
For those of us who feel things deeply but find earnestness mortifying, noisy humor is often the only way into our most vulnerable selves. HA HA, LOOK OVER HERE, EVERYBODY! (the weight of loving mortal beings is simply too much to bear) TAKE MY HUSBAND, PLEASE! I don’t know if that’s exactly Havrilesky’s deal, but it’s definitely mine, which is why I identified her essay persona as a kindred spirit, years before she learned my name.
Reading can make you feel close to someone without actually knowing them, a precious gift in a lonely world. But if the pleasure of reading is feeling connected to a distant stranger, then the pain of watching people read badly is its opposite: a severing of shared humanity. A cold, demoralizing reminder that we never can look inside each other’s minds, no matter how we try.
Books once kept the boundaries between writer and reader distinct. Unless you met an author under the controlled circumstances of a public event, you’d never get a chance to say hello, much less insult their intelligence and demand they go to therapy. Now, you and 300 other furious strangers can tell an author to kill herself before she’s finished her first coffee. Technology is a miracle.
In all seriousness, though, it is. (I may not love you, but I do love you, internet.) Having lived on both sides of the digital divide, I would never trade the opportunities we have now to create connection and mutual understanding—to say nothing of the information access. In writing this essay, I pulled up the New York Times, a Virginia Woolf essay, a Henry James short story, an encyclopedia entry on Roland Barthes, multiple Joan Didion books, a clip from a 1988 movie, a picture of an actor making a specific face, the exact wording of a line from Succession that aired a few weeks ago, and a link that enables immediate purchase of a book I mentioned, all within seconds, on the device I was already working on. (Fittingly, the only physical book I quoted from was an old copy of The Gutenberg Elegies.) The Brother word processor I went to college with in 1992 couldn’t do that. A hot-shit librarian couldn’t do that in 1992 without 24 hours’ notice. I harbor no doubts about whether this lifestyle is spiritually or intellectually preferable to some woodsy hermitage full of paper books and my own stupid thoughts. I love it here.
But what we love is never free of flaws. Every day of the last two years, we’ve seen the devastating consequences of combining a torrential flow of information with lousy reading and thinking. We have to do better, and that’s not just some vague call to arms I’m plunking in here at the end because I’ve used up my brain for the day and want to go to bed. Reading better, thinking better, is quite literally a matter of survival in the time of Covid and climate change, in these days when we’re reflecting on the first anniversary of disinformation-powered insurrectionists breaching the U.S. Capitol. It’s no longer enough to see a headline, feel a feeling, and go off. We have to ask more questions, of ourselves and our sources, starting with that fundamental one: Does this make any fucking sense at all?
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