Reading and Moral Superiority

In an essay for The Atlantic, Thomas Williams criticizes book skeptics, like Kanye West, who proudly admit their disdain of books. Micah Mattix, in turn, criticizes Thomas Williams:

“Listen, lots of people never read books. The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet have never read at all. This isn’t a virtue, and Williams is right to point out that despising reading isn’t a virtue either. But I don’t buy the idea, as Williams suggests above, that reading or writing a book is inherently virtuous.

In fact, I suspect that West and people like Sean McElwee are reacting against the constant over-hyping of the virtues of reading one encounters in the national press (on the left and the right) and in our schools.

They are likely reacting against view—rarely stated but assumed by most—that readers, particularly readers of what is called “literary fiction,” are better than non-readers. Reading of this sort, it is assumed, requires a more refined sensibility. It develops one’s capacity for empathy and cultivates one’s affections. It helps one be a better citizen, neighbor, and friend. It expands one’s capacity for making associations and distinctions. Reading makes one more fully human.

Color me skeptical. Reading may do some of these things, but I’ve known too many bookish jackasses and saintly non-readers to pronounce the latter ‘morally bankrupt’. To do so, I would need to be ‘abysmally ill-informed.’”

Mattix has made this sort of argument before. Yes, books, and perhaps especially works of classic literature, have the potential to shape people in profound and significant ways. Yes, books can instill virtue. Yes, books can help you become more empathetic.

Or not. There are people who read books and become worst off in their character. And there are people who hardly ever read and are more virtuous than those who do. It’s probably best to read books because … wait for it … you love to read. To take a hedonistic approach to books and literature rather than a moral or political one.

There is of course reading for more pragmatic ends. For example, maybe you want to learn how cars work or how to invest your money wisely, so you borrow some books from the library to expand your knowledge. But this is often most effective when you sincerely love the thing you want to learn about because learning out of love is more likely (though not always!) to turn reading into an act of pleasure rather than a performative tool for proving your (or your tribe’s) moral worth.

“Beauty Reading”, by Takeuchi Keishu. Source:

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