The Solitary Vice.
Hey, lookit everybody! It's a legs-and-feet cover on a book written by a woman! And I don't hate it! In fact I kind of like it, which made me wonder briefly if my girl Olga designed it, but I dismissed the idea pretty quickly, as it didn't really seem to be her style. It was, in fact, designed by David Barnett, and he did a great job, shooting a photo of a woman from above, a book covering her pelvic area. Does this mean I love Olga Grlic any less, and will start waving my giant foam finger for David Barnett now? Of course not. It's just that there's more than one way to be clever, and getting me to not throw the book across the room when I saw the legs and feet is an accomplishment that deserves recognition.*
I almost chose not to read it anyway, because the subtitle, Against Reading, basically dared me to. I have exactly nineteen other books from people who want me to read their books, and any excuse to cut the list short is fine by me.
The premise of Brottman's book, in case you haven't figured it out from the title, is a rebuttal to the push for literacy that takes place mostly in the form of ad campaigns urging people to read more. If reading is so good for you and so much fun, she argues, why do we have to be browbeaten into it? Perhaps reading is a solitary act akin to masturbation, fun in small doses, but do it too much and people stop wanting to shake your hand. Too much time hiding behind a book causes the bookworm to lose the ability to relate to one's peers, and causes a somewhat antisocial personality to develop. Brottman relates her own childhood spent in the attic in her home, voraciously devouring her town library's collection. As a result, she was "ill-looking and white, etiolated, like a plant without sunlight...[her] hair was a veil of grease hiding a sour, miserable expression."
I don't dispute that there are kids who use books to avoid interacting socially; I was one of them. I was never, ever without a book, because I learned quickly that when I was reading, adults left me alone, and other kids, kids who might have bullied me (or might not have, I never wanted to risk finding out), left me alone, too. I read at the dinner table, in the car, and during recess. Where I part from Brottman is that I don't think it was the books that made me antisocial; I think I was that way to begin with, and I still am. After decades of failed attempts at forcing myself to be a social butterfly, I've reconciled myself to the fact that not liking to spend a lot of time around other people is just the way I was made, and it isn't the fault of books. Books were what made me happy, for crying out loud.
Brottman has a slight tendency to think her experiences with reading are universal. In subsequent chapters, she makes the point that literature isn't the end-all, be all of what we "should" be reading, and that the benefits of reading classic literature are blown out of proportion. It's just as good to read true crime stories, Hollywood gossip stories, or psychoanalytic case studies, even better in some ways, because it teaches you real world lessons. She gives a gentle knock to "the plain girl's Bible**," Jane Eyre, for teaching us ugly chicks to have unrealistic expectations at finding romance.
Again, we differ, because this wasn't the lesson my little-girl self took from Jane Eyre at all. I learned from Jane not to let the judgment of others get you down, that self-respect and self-reliance were preferable to twisting yourself into knots to meet the demands of others, and, from the part in the book where Jane walks away from true love, that no man is worth selling your soul to. I still think those are pretty good life lessons that you can't get from reading Hollywood Animal (although Joe Eszterhas is such a hilarious douche, it's worth reading at least the article I linked to) or Valley of the Dolls.***
Although Brottman's voice is both personable and engaging, with juicy little tidbits such as Art Garfunkel's weird, obsessive online cataloging of every single book he's read since the early sixties, The Solitary Vice is a bit disjointed. I kept forgetting, when I was reading her very long chapter about her love for true crime novels, what her point was supposed to be. Why does a love for In Cold Blood make the case against reading? Is it just literature that's like masturbation and the John Douglas behavioral science books don't blur the line of reality and lead to bad lifestyle choices? If that's true, why did Brottman develop a pen-pal relationship with a prisoner who was jailed for killing his pregnant girlfriend?**** I'm confused now.
The main thing that I agreed with Brottman on was that life's too short to spend on a book you hate. There are too many good ones out there, and what those "good ones" are is entirely up to you. I decided last year that I'm probably never going to be in the mood to read James Joyce's Ulysses, while my friend Funnie did read it and enjoyed it very much.
At any rate, The Solitary Vice didn't really make much of a case against reading, or even reading too much, in fact, it actually made me want to read The Cask of Amontillado again, and I can't figure out if Brottman would think that was a good thing, or not.
*If a book was written about a female protagonist who was a double amputee, would they still put legs and feet on the cover? I think they would. It would be a drawing of disembodied legs and feet in stiletto heels, maybe lying in the grass somewhere, or just a pair of legs in a beauty chair, getting a pedicure.
***A book which produced the single most hilarious line in all of fiction, when Neely O'Hara slurs, "There's nothing better than a wop in the kip!" So completely crass, yet so completely old-fashioned at the same time. Oh, Neely, you brassy broad, you!
****Some things are really best kept to oneself. This is one of those things.
The Solitary Vice
by Mikita Brottman
April, 2008 by Counterpoint Press
Paperback, 224 pages
Thursday, July 03, 2008
The Solitary Vice.