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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Importance of Reading

Anatole Miara's photograph of me reading
On Sunday, sitting on a park bench reading philosophy, I was approached by the documentary photographer Anatole Miara who wanted to take my photograph. I don't know why he approached me but it is interesting to entertain the possibility that the very act of reading a book, let alone a philosophical book, in a public space is today so extraordinary that it should be documented for prosperity. Ruminating on such a thought, I started to contemplate contemporary designs of libraries as spaces in which people are now encouraged to talk and the idea of the library as a place where people should be silent is rendered anachronistic. Indeed while quiet reading places continue to exist at Royal Holloway's various libraries, the trajectory of design seems much more orientated towards cafe-style social spaces in which people gather and chat. Even in the silent areas (not to mention during lectures) it is often unavoidable to notice that the silent are often engaged in looking at Facebook rather than actually reading books. Increasingly universities look like spaces where people go not to study.

If there is dumbing-down to be done as per usual the Business School tends to take the lead and eagerly embraces new class-room technologies to "improve the learning experience", while Powerpoint, that programme developed to help sales staff make their pitch and in which complex ideas are reduced to a series of easy-to-digest bullet points, has become all but the norm. Case studies and group presentations generally take over until the typical seminar becomes one of students spending more time writing reports than reading books, and more time talking instead of listening. Logically one would expect that if the university becomes a site in which students spend more time producing outputs than inputs, then a process of dumbing-down must eventually kick in, the pedagogical value of discussing ideas notwithstanding. Meanwhile a general suspicion takes hold that when previously published studies are being cited in projects, their existence is being pointed towards rather than a reporting of an actual reading that has taken place. None of this bodes well.

As Stefano Harney from Queen Mary has commented, universities today often find it difficult to maintain space for actual education and learning as it has become so determined "by its own labour process, its own schedule of production, turning out articles, books, students, exams, papers, marks, minutes, buildings, brands, patents". "Trying to hold a reading group in the university today" he argues, "is like trying to hold one on the floor of a car plant or a discount trader". Hence in today's unversities in general, and business schools in particular, it seems that we are in danger of externalising serious reading from the so-called "student experience".

Stefano Harney

The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman presents contemporary life as defined by a liquid modernity in which an ethos prevails of instant consumption, gratification, disposability and an order that is hostile to long-term planning and meditative reflection. For Bauman terms such as "nowist" and "hurried culture" help explain the impatience which attends any "idea of 'progress' as an otherwise empty riverbed of time being slowly and steadily filled up by human labours". In such motivation of hurry, the uselessness of reading books and the exasperation with the amount of time and concentration required to get from page one to the end is all-too-obvious. And, in a period where universities are being measured on the basis of the quality of the "student experience" we see the shift in orientation as the university becomes reconfigured as a space for arousing emotions, rather than cultivating reason and ultimately as a space of liquid modernity rather than enlightenment; a violence against the core of the university and the idea of education.

Zygmunt Bauman

In such a context where reading is becoming externalised from education it is necessary to reclaim the act of reading and to recognise that it has now almost become a radical act inside the university. As John Holloway might see it, the act of going to a public space and reading a book - not necessarily a book that you want to memorise in advance of an examination, but a book to be read to expand your understanding of a subject area without any immediate pay-off - constitutes a crack; that is a creation of space as a temporary autonomous zone in which we assert different types of doing, a moment of potential self-determination where we subtract ourselves from the speed of liquid modernity and learn how to see the world differently. As Holloway argues, precisely because the act of reading a book now presents a moment of breaking the instrumental chain of reasoning, whereby everything has to be justified as a means towards an immediate end, it presents us with a possibility of new ways of doing, new ways of being and new ways of reclaiming what it means to be self-deterministic. If universities are no longer sites that present the possibility of such learning and self-transformation, then they have lost their way and if degrees are conferred without such reflections having ever had taken place, they are not worth having.

John Holloway


  1. In his observations on reading - that is, the lack thereof - Alan Bradshaw hits the nail on the head in his typically insightful head-hitting style. I especially like and agree with his comment about dumbing down at business schools. Yes!

  2. Hi Alan, I hope you are doing well. Thank you for a very interesting posting.

    I think that reading is like mental yoga. Everyone knows that yoga is healthy, good for body and mind... However, if some people find it boring it is debatable weather they should really force themselves to attend the classes or try something else... may be dancing? =)