It sometimes seems as though the claims we make for books are getting larger. “Can reading make you happier?” the anthropologist Ceridwen Dovey asked recently in the New Yorker. Dovey gamely traces the tradition of bibliotherapy back to 1916. But her focus is on recent work by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin whose book, The Novel Cure, prescribes fiction reading as “the ultimate cure” because “it gives readers a transformational experience”.
I have a stake in these arguments. In 2008, I set up a degree at Bristol University that involves students running a community reading group as part of the course. I believe in books – and even more in education – as a social good. But I worry that the claims we make for reading’s power are unhelpful, even that they blind us to some of what we need to make the most of books.
In 2013, I spent a semester teaching literature at Al-Quds University in the West Bank. From the main gate of the university’s campus in Abu Dis, the first thing you see is the Wall. It was built in 2002 and it was originally set to cut the campus in half. If you stand on the road outside campus, Jerusalem appears as a thin line, with the golden Dome of the Rock at its centre, caught between the horizon above and the Wall below. The city should be a 20-minute drive away, but it takes students who live there up to an hour and a half to get to class.
Al-Quds is the only Palestinian university not recognised by Israel’s Council for Higher Education, because it maintains campuses in both Jerusalem and the West Bank. As a consequence, it can register neither as a ‘foreign’ institution nor as an Israeli one. For a Jerusalem-based student, this means that his or her degree is not recognised in Israel-so, for example, if you qualify as a doctor at Al-Quds but live in Jerusalem, your only option is to move abroad to use your degree.
Many teachers find it a challenge persuading students to do the reading for class. I had been trying to convince one young man at Al-Quds, Haytham, to keep up all semester, so when I got an e-mail from him, after we had looked at an extract from Malcolm X’s Autobiography, it felt like a small breakthrough:
“Regarding why do I think that reading is not necessary, the whole idea got changed after hearing Malcolm’s part of the story which actually convinced me. However I would love to re-talk about [it] all on Tuesday and I think I have some cool thoughts regarding this matter.”
Haytham was not the only student who often did not do the reading. But his resistance bothered me. He was one of the most engaged students in seminars, participating in debates with passion and humour. I could not make sense of his reluctance.
I had given the students an extract from Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes his growing awareness of his illiteracy while in prison: “I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there.” He starts to copy out the dictionary, and ultimately becomes an obsessive reader. He is outraged by the prison’s policy of putting the lights out at 10pm:
“Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when ‘lights out’ came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.”
Malcolm X concludes the account by saying that reading “awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive”. We talked about the opposite of being “mentally alive”, and Adel suggested it would mean being a “zombie”.
Haytham, who up until this point had seemed openly sceptical, said that Malcolm X read in order to have power. After class, one woman came up to me and said she thought this was not quite right. She suggested that he had read, and written, in order to lead.
In the next class, I gave out a copy of a Bill of Rights for readers, by the French novelist Daniel Pennac, in which he outlines 10 rights including “The right to not read” and “The right to skip pages”. I asked the students what they would add to or remove from Pennac’s list. Haytham spoke first. He said: “In Palestine, the first thing you would need is the right to not be arrested – for what you read, or for what you do with what you read.” In the discussion that followed, students said that this would once have applied to the Israelis, but they were now also afraid of the Palestinian Authority.
A young woman called Inas queried “the right to read out loud”. She said this might annoy other people, which provoked a discussion about the balance in rights, between the individual and the effect on others. Someone said that you should have to defend your tastes; otherwise you could say something hateful and get away with it. Another student, laughing, said there should be a right “not to be interrupted”, so she could always say to her mother that she could not do something else if she was reading.
When I first arrived in the West Bank, I had a conversation with an American friend in Ramallah. I said that I had met several people in my first few weeks at the university who seemed depressed. But I was unsure whether to call it depression, which is (too) often seen as an illness afflicting an individual. The unhappiness I was encountering, in contrast, seemed to be a reflection of the intractable situation in the West Bank. The occupation is brutal in many ways, but some of the most pernicious effects are subtle and cumulative.
In the midst of it, could I persuade my students (or myself) that reading would make them happier? Or that it would have any purpose for them to read the texts I was setting for class?
In his novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury constructs a dystopian society, in which books are banned. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman, whose job is to burn books, but who gradually becomes curious about them. He becomes friends with a former English professor called Faber. “We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy,” Montag laments: “I thought books might help.” Faber replies: “You’re a hopeless romantic. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books.” He points out that books in themselves are of no use, unless there are books of quality and unless people have leisure to digest them and the right to carry out actions based on what they read.
I didn’t manage to persuade Haytham to do all of the reading for the seminars. But it turned out he was right all along. He knew, better than I did, that it was not books alone that he needed.