Prominent literary critic Harold Bloom writes that “real reading is a lonely activity and does not teach anyone to become a better citizen” (Richter, 226). Yet in this same epilogue to his book The Western Cannon: The Books and School of the Ages he claims that “such a reader” reads to “enlarge a solitary existence” (Richter, 226). I find these two statements somewhat at odds with each other and tend to agree more with the later than the former, especially within today’s reading population. Reading is no longer “lonely” and has so much more capacity to “enlarge a solitary existence” by the connections one is able to make with others simply by sharing what one reads online. In the digital information age, individuals and the information they produce are increasingly connected not only by social ties, but ties of information and interest. Online research of a theme in a book is only a few clicks away from the individual who produced that research. Knowledge is becoming socialized in a way it never has before and literary knowledge is swept up in that bundle as well. I would argue, through my experience this semester, that readers are not only limited when they do not allow themselves access to this socially connected knowledge, but, further, that they are not fully informed and cannot experience the text as it exists socially today. Students of literature must read and engage in a process of social inquiry and discovery, enabled by the richness of online resources, in order to properly engage with a text as it exists in today’s world.
Traditional literary reading and research would have us read the paper copy of the text in isolation, ask several questions about it and do a close reading explication of it, and find a few articles to corroborate our interpretation. Depending on your method or your instruction, you can rearrange the order of those tasks. I started my academic journey in this way, reading my copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and going to the library to search out articles about the subject I was primarily concerned with in the book: the censorship of the N word in Alan Gribben’s latest edition. This is a hot topic in academic circles right now. I found an article that interested me from the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled The Redacted 'Huckleberry Finn': 'Chronicle' Bloggers Respond. Intrigued by the summary of several different arguments revolving around the N word issue, I followed this lead to the Chronicle’s blog (2011). Here I found academic and internet community collide. On these posts academics wrote, posted these articles online, and anyone who wanted could respond via the comments section. There were even dissenting arguments! I followed one comment to the commenters blog and sent him an email asking more about his opinions. This is just one way information can lead to people who can lead to more information.
It reminds me of a theme in the very novel I was researching. Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer put a lot of stock in “book learnin'”. At several points in the novel, Tom wants to do everything by the book, at one point chastising his friend Ben when he asks why they can’t play a their game a certain way. Tom says: “Because it ain't in the books so -- that's why. Now, Ben Rogers, do you want to do things regular, or don't you? -- that's the idea. Don't you reckon that the people that made the books knows what's the correct thing to do? Do you reckon you can learn 'em anything? Not by a good deal” (Twain, 11). But in reality, Huck doesn’t begin to really learn until he gets away from a structured school environment and associates with others. It is in long discussions with Jim, his socially acquired knowledge, that Huck learns the most important lesson and decides not to give Jim up; he discovers that doing what society says is “right,” doesn’t always feel right and decides he’d rather “go to hell” and help a good man become free, than betray his friend (Twain, 217).
Just as Huck has to search outside of books to learn the most important lessons of the novel, readers and students of literature must take off on a wider river of information in order to understand the current social significance of what we read. In my own research journey, I found a plethora of resources that increased my understanding of the novel and involved me in ongoing discussions about it. Listening to the audio version of the novel contextualized the sounds of the dialects I was reading. Searching for syllabi online helped me understand the controversies and issues currently being discussed about the novel. I found a hypertext version of the novel that linked to pictures of the action that helped me as a reader to visualize the plot. Searching the social streams (such as twitter) that were discussing the novel helped me to find interesting things others were doing with the novel and author such as google maps all the important locations Mark Twain’s life, literary pilgrimages one could take to explore the novel and Twain’s life, photos of original copies of the novel, and even a version of the book translated into bar codes. I also found plenty of blogs and groups discussing themes from the novel. All of these resources and more enriched my study and more fully contextualized my understanding of the issues I was researching. I could not have engaged with the novel to the same degree without using these methods of digital and social inquiry and it is necessary for students of literature today to do the same, because knowledge isn’t isolated anymore. The internet makes even reading a social process.
Richter, David H. Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Boston: Bedford, 2000. Print.
"The Redacted 'Huckleberry Finn': 'Chronicle' Bloggers Respond." Chronicle of Higher Education 57.21 (2011): B4. Print.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003. Print.