What are books for? A novelist goes beyond hot takes

by Elaine Castillo”How to read nowbegins with a section titled “Author’s Note, or a Virgin Clarifies Things.” The title sums up the style of the book well: rigorous but still talkative, intellectual but not precious or academic about it.

In this author’s note, Castillo provides an overview of his target audience. She doesn’t just write for “the type of people who read books and attend literary festivals,” she hopes. “Books, as universal as they are, are not a destination,” she asserts. “They’re a landmark…one of the places we go to help us become readers in the world.” Ultimately, she says, “I’m not just talking about how to read books now; I’m talking about how to read our world now.

Castillo, in other words, isn’t just interested in preaching to the choir that reading is important. She knows it – and hopes we do too. Instead, she asks us to investigate how and why we read: to pay attention to the information we ingest and how we have learned to interact with it. This is a particularly important point right now, not only because of the recent increase in book bans, but also because the conversation between people who read so often reduces book culture to photo shoots. and prepackaged talking points.

The introduction is helpful, because from there “How to Read Now” unfolds at a breakneck pace. Each of the book’s eight essays shines brightly from start to finish. Castillo, who debuted with the novel “America is not the heartis both fiercely intelligent and fiercely opinionated (that’s part of what she means by saying she’s a Virgo, for readers unfamiliar with astrology). She tolerates no fools and takes no prisoners. In a representative excerpt from an essay titled “Reading Teaches Us Empathy and Other Fictions,” Castillo compares asking writers of color to “produce hot-take-jukebox commentary on the latest [screw-up] perpetrated by the staunchly racist and tone-deaf publishing industry” to demand that they “delete like – they didn’t take”.

“How to Read Now” isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, it’s clarifying and invigorating. Castillo offers a thorough critique of some of the most vapid and selfish ideas in the literary world, as well as some thoughts on how to continue reading not as an exercise in building one’s own personal storehouse of virtue, but rather within the framework of a continuous process. decolonialist — that is, fundamentally connected and conjunctive — practical.

There are two main styles of reading that Castillo wishes to dismantle. One is the notion of “art for art’s sake”, according to which art objects should be able to exist without context, history or any kind of political analysis. Castillo counters that any work worthy of admiration is strong enough to withstand criticism, be it aesthetic, cultural or political. “Recognizing the truth of colonialism and the slave trade in [Jane] AustenThe era of ‘is not an act of literary suppression vandalism’, she argues, ‘but an act of literary expansion and restoration, not to mention the slightest concession to reality’.

This argument is not exactly new; it goes back to the very first critics who ventured beyond formalism. But his second target complicates and enriches the book. There are those, she writes, for whom reading is not only necessarily but only political – intended to improve one’s own personality and position rather than, as the writer Jia Tolentino put it in a 2020 interview, pursuing “the real pleasure of decentering”. This view, in Castillo’s description, reduces art – too often the art of marginalized people – to “a kind of ethical protein shake”, which “will kind of build the muscles in us that will help us see others as human”. Her basic idea “makes superficial sense,” she admits, but it “also produces a superficial effect.”

Then how should we read now? Castillo offers suggestions but no solutions. She’s less interested in answers with a capital A – stuff, for example, from anti-racist reading guides of 2020 – and more excited about the opportunity to bring a multitude of voices and perspectives to the conversation so we can find ourselves immersed in our texts rather than trying to maintain their authority over them.

Being willing to see and talk about history, even when it’s ugly, is what allows us to truly reach ourselves through fiction, Castillo argues. It is precisely by contextualizing the artistic works – while respecting their art – that we go beyond the “relevant” portraits of an Other exoticism and that we understand how our stories intertwine and co-construct. “We can only be each other if we actually do the work of to be each other’s people“, she writes: “look our common history in the face and really read it”.

As promised, it also goes beyond the page. The essay “Honor the Treaty” explores how public signage, statues, and even ecology contribute to how we read our surroundings, helping us to understand that they are not neutral but politically and historically charged. “Autobiography in Asian Film, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Representation” focuses, as its title suggests, on what it feels like to see and echo in the characters on screen, and how these cinematic visions resonate in the world outside the darkened theater.

In any book with so many opinions, the reader is bound to disagree with some. There are times you almost wish Castillo would stop while speaking so you can get a word in edgewise. But then, that’s exactly what makes How to Read Now so rewarding: it’s not a lecture, but half a conversation, less about issuing commands and more about provoking responses.

In the book’s final essay, “The Children of Polyphemus,” Castillo writes movingly about how our notions of civility are constructed — and how many are rejected by the barriers erected in the process. The stories we tell about who counts as human, as worthy of care, determine how we treat each other. “How do we hold ourselves accountable – the root of indebted meaning: how can we let the story of ourselves be told? ” she asks. “Holding yourself accountable…means that in our art we do not involve our most powerful, most authoritative and most intelligent selves, but: our most particular, most insecure, most dependent selves. »

A book is nothing without a reader; it is co-created by its recipients, recreated each time the page is turned again. “How to Read Now” offers its audience the opportunity to look beyond the simplicity in which we are too often spoon-fed in order to restore ourselves to chaos and complexity – a way of seeing and reading that demands so much more from us but offer even more in return.

Romanoff is a writer and author of several young adult novels.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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