The study of reading, or rather readers, has always been a bit of a Gordian knot. Who reads, what they read and what they should read are questions that have been regularly reframed throughout the history of critical thought. Reader-response theory, reception theory, audience studies and the history of the book are just some of the schools of criticism that focus on the role of the reader in the construction of the literary text. But what all these theoretical standpoints seem to share is an anxiety about the relationship between reading and personal agency. What is the value of reading? And who, if anyone, should decide what we read? Jonathan Rose’s Readers’ Liberation, the latest in the Literary Agenda series from Oxford University Press, seeks to answer these questions.
In a political climate where a new review of English post-18 education is set to suggest that humanities degrees are worth less than those in subjects such as science and maths, an added urgency might be attached to series editor Philip Davis’ calls for “polemical monographs” that make the case for “the importance of literature and of reading”. Readers’ Liberation certainly fits the brief of offering polemical arguments – “Feminists really should be more generous in acknowledging the debt they owe to Hugh Hefner” – but as a tonic (if Rose was hoping to invigorate or strengthen our resolve as champions of reading), the book offers fairly mild medicine.
Some of the arguments here are familiar, perhaps even old hat, to those who have spent their lives defending the value of reading. The well-known “reading slows and often even arrests reoffending rates among prisoners” argument is rehearsed, as is the mountain of evidence for reading-as-therapy. It is difficult to imagine that the readership of Readers’ Liberation will include anyone other than those already sympathetic to its cause. Particularly for those who work in higher education, literature is an acknowledged force for good, thus Rose is preaching to a very weary choir when he tells us that “reading literary fiction enhances empathy”, or that there are deep gendered imbalances (more women read fiction and study literature, but syllabuses and “Great Books” lists disproportionately favour male authors). The people who need to read this book, for whom it should be on a prescribed reading list, are those who have the power to make decisions about access to reading in schools, in prisons and in other places where vulnerable people require support – educative or otherwise.
In the latter half of the book, Rose makes the convincing case that fake news, PR spin and access journalism are phenomena that date back hundreds of years and across continents. He notes the early sceptical readers of the first English newspapers, the Corante (1621) and the Weekly News (1622), before exploring the rise of investigative journalism and its various success stories such as the Watergate scandal. These moments serve to punctuate the history of our suspicion of newspapers with the occasional spike of fleeting confidence. For the present, we’re given statistics such as “among millennials…just 11 percent trust the media”, but the internet sits somewhat awkwardly in this account as an amorphous space of “scurrilous…but often highly enlightening…reading”. Rose’s rather eristic final thought is that “liberated readers” exist, if they exist at all, outside academia in reading groups, while the university has become a place where students “don’t want intellectual freedom” and readerly “dissent” is a thing of the past.
Helena Goodwyn is lecturer in Victorian studies at the University of St Andrews. She is working on a book titled The Americanization of W. T. Stead.
Readers’ Liberation: The Literary Agenda
By Jonathan Rose
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £14.99
Published 11 January 2018