Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Book Reviews

Good on Paper

Books, reading, and literature cultivate “a way of being in time.”

Nan Z. Da

Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83) (detail); Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin, Saint-Omer, France/Bridgeman Images.

Decluttering expert Marie Kondo is stern about books: Get rid of the extra ones. There’s an optimal time to read a book, and that’s when you encounter it; otherwise, it just sits on your shelf as a reminder of the closing of that window. This instruction, like the rest of her program in her 2016 book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, is a romance of undifferentiation. Just as you’re supposed to reduce the number of categories for your belongings, the time of encountering a book is to be made equal to the space of reading it. No more compartmentalization than that is needed. The first time is the best and only time. If a book really meant that much to you, Kondo suggests simply buying it again. When her own book ceases to give joy, one should also let it go.

Against this otherwise unimpeachable redirecting of consumer habits through immediate pleasure, we all need better explanations for the desire to keep books—many unread, many that will never be read, most of which will never be read again, a handful truly loved. But let’s be real about the rest. A rigorous defense of that most ordinary act of picking up a book and deferring its reading to some later time, it turns out, comes to us unsurprisingly from a book, specifically, a work of theoretical literary criticism.

In Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century, Christina Lupton argues that books are technologies of future-orientation. They wait for us patiently as non-negotiable chunks of reading time that must be taken from somewhere, as things toward which we strive, interacted with here and there in stolen, discontinuous moments that may or may not be repeated with different results.

That might not seem like such a complex, original, or consequential argument, since many of us imagine ourselves, in the good life of the future, retired in the company of old books, biding our time until we get to read them. All of us know that you can revisit books and jump around in them. But it turns out that Lupton’s argument has to make corrections to every disciplinary paradigm it passes through: book history, media theory, narrative theory, the philosophy of time, histories of Enlightenment print culture, and critical methodologies built on the dissemination of reading materials.

First, there was always competition between reading, distraction, and labor; it is just not very clear how books and time technologies factor into this competition. Lupton studies the eighteenth century, a period that produced an explosion in reading materials yet also new ways to rob time from reading. In the normatization of temporal experience, history ceased to happen in time, but through time (Reinhart Kosselleck), and discipline shifted from corporal punishment to subjectification in time (Michel Foucault). More practically, there were new instruments for the regimentation of time, for organizing the day around clocking in and out, for reducing life to productivity and output (E.P. Thompson).

Books, reading, and literature may obviously intervene in capitalist, managerial time or normative temporalities, but they do so by cultivating “a way of being in time,” not just by granting time. Requests for more time and space for reading are invariably met with skepticism—the higher-ups might say you’re not actually harried all the time—there are lots of boring stretches in a busy person’s life, and time given to reading may as easily be wasted on social media. We need to reassess fantasies of undifferentiated time. The eighteenth-century readers Lupton brings to life in various ways imagined ideal reading not in utopian futures abounding in idle time but as taking place in discrete chunks of time only barely walled off from the demands of life.

Distinctions, or fine separations between things, matter, and Lupton means to loosen Pierre Bourdieu’s semantic monopoly on that term. Consider the pressure on a modern parent to compartmentalize her life—to go instantly from teaching a class to putting on a song and dance for baby, to go from filler-outer of forms and health system navigator to keeper of memories, wage worker, or lover. Such compartments make, as Lupton writes, for the “intimate strategies that people, women in particular, have used in partitioning their days, weeks, and lives, and making their reading fit those partitionings.”

Taking her cue from the constant adjustment to the discontinuous spaces and experiences that governs modern life, Lupton adapts posthumanist precepts to describe the happiness and meaning in that life as things that flourish only under certain conditions and with certain limitations. From Niklas Luhmann and Bruno Latour, Lupton reworks the insight that systems “maintain their distinct operations, and their integrity as markers of meaning, mostly as a matter of timing,” meaning that a person’s ontology in any given system (the hospital, the school, the court) overrides one’s continuity as a person, but only as long as one is in that system. This is also true for books. There are many ways in which a book passes through time. A book can spend part of its life sitting on your shelf, in lending records, or on credit card statements; it can spend another part setting all kinds of meaningful activities in motion (being reviewed, recommended, sent to friends, given space) without actually being read. When read, a book can be deeply teleological (precipitating life-changing phenomena such as marriages and revolutions) without the reader having to align herself with its teleology in one sitting. Intimately, deeply, meaningfully, or otherwise, reading arises under certain material conditions, but it happens intermittently, and that intermittence matters to individuals making their way in the world as agents.

Practically, 400 pages is 400 pages of time. As Lupton observes, “Reading isn’t a tool for making leisure time where there is none, and…books don’t get into our brains magically.” But, true to the social dynamics of the gift as theorized by Jacques Derrida (by way of cultural anthropology), books also give time. If not necessarily the sensation that time is passing faster or slower—since, after all, there are all kinds of books and all kinds of reading experiences—what kind of time does the book give? In this question lies the central counterintuition of Reading and the Making of Time, because a book doesn’t give you time in the way someone can give you a fruit basket. Take, for example, Low-Life: or, One Half of the World Knows Not How the Other Half Lives (1750), a narrative of all of the activities that occur in every hour of the day. If, as it suggests, all the hours are taken up by the business of living, then when was this particular book supposed to be read? A book doesn’t represent its own reception the way a painting might: Somehow, the book will get read—it just does so in a way that’s not readily answerable to assessment.

Lupton does not stake that possibility on represented time—in literature, for example, that takes its time describing things, that transports you to futuristic worlds or idyllic pasts, that flashes forward and backward, or that otherwise plays with diegetic time. Rather, she is after the freedoms one can take with the unfolding of a narrative that depend absolutely on their being inside a book, on the thingness of literature. A book has to be a literal closed object—a codex—for you to flip around in it. It’s important to be able to see unambiguously that a book ends, that it can “lay out a whole truth before people are ready to hear it,” for that truth to exist in a particular way in the mind. The materiality of the book makes it possible, as Lupton writes, for “texts [to] anticipate non-normative handling in time.”

Yet where others would run the materiality argument into tallies and network maps, and away from a book’s actual content, Lupton argues that the given time of reading “cannot be easily mapped if we think only of books as objects.” Reading can’t be timed to a book’s unfolding as it can be to a book’s being published, sold, taken across seas, reissued in new editions; if that were so, then one could use those traces to refresh the old influence arguments and imagine any transaction as evidence of reading and absorption. Referring to a conversation between Michel Serres and Latour in 1995, Lupton writes that the latter had been cautioned “against using networks as models of the material world on grounds very similar to the ones on which Bourdieu warns against abstract models of exchange.” Reading experiences are myriad (books are dashed through, picked up, set side, saved for later, returned to) and empirically resistant to disambiguation. You can be reading slowly because you’re bored or because you’re thinking hard, because you’re searching for something academic or lingering over the steamy parts. You can be setting a book aside because you’re angry or because it’s so powerful that you must avert your eyes for a while—who can tell?

Reading is not an event. For all that historians, cultural theorists, sociologists, and librarians can tell us about it, it remains impossible to place in “a historical or daily continuum” because it is “empirically unavailable.”

The book, by its very nature, constitutes a “mode” in Latour’s sense of that word, a material-specific experience distinguished from other experiences by the kind of time it demands—not simply in terms of duration, as in the time required to take in a play or a book, but of the nature of the duration. One January morning in 2007, the world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell played his violin in the Washington Metro and people walked right past him. Lupton considers Bell’s stunt and, rather than decry the philistinism of passersby, arrives at a different assessment: Clearly, art and its reception require their own space, time, and manners of adjudication. Curating and protecting a way of being in time with art means making things available without looking over people’s shoulders or at their faces to see what they took from the experience, without asking people to fill out self-evaluations on productivity and impact. The trick is not merely to ease conditions of labor to make space for reading, and to cordon off reading as a specific kind of leisure, but to resist the urge to ask reading to show for itself, and instead leave people to work out their distances from and intimacies with books over the course of an entire life.

Among all the readers in Lupton’s survey of the eighteenth century, no one makes a more resonant observation than the liberal idealist William Godwin, someone who envisioned the time before and after a revolution as equally devoted to the reading of books. Books, unlike other printed works (pamphlets, newspapers, cellphone manuals), do not depend on immediate uptake—they can wait, and because of this have pride of place in what Lupton calls “the long game of telling the truth.” People who procure books in order to read them later may not have much to show for this practice, and may not seem to have made their books manuals for living for any extended period of time. Yet for those who come across works of literature long after their more privileged brethren have done so, and declared such books used up, passé, reactionary, or nothing more than symbols of cultural capital, there’s no such thing as arriving late on the scene. The excitement of acquiring concrete, pocketable books in the hope of perhaps someday reading their contents forms in the mind a modest but palpable self who may be permitted by circumstance to do so—a self still waiting in the wings. For them Reading and the Making of Time is written.