Reading Together

About a year ago, my twin sister moved to Pennsylvania to pursue her PhD in Physics. For twenty-two years, she and I either lived together or within walking distance of each other. Now, for the first time in our lives, we’ve been living genuinely apart, which is an especially odd thing when you’re a twin. We still talk almost every day, mostly over text and sometimes on the phone. We send each other little mundane details of our lives in order to keep feeling connected. Living in the digital age affords us so many more convenient opportunities for staying connected than we would have had thirty years ago. But living in the age of Instagram, Twitter, and group chats can also feel overwhelming. While my sister and I can stay in touch with one another, constant connectedness can leave us—or to anybody, sometimes—feeling raw and over-exposed instead of protected and supported.

The quickness of communication in the digital age can feel like a whirlwind where we never get to rest and deeply connect. But reading a book alone promises to give us the opposite of what social media delivers. In the last several years, homages to solitude and especially reading in solitude have cropped up in response to this very issue. Instead of bite-size pieces of often reactionary, snarky quips, we get a long, sometimes twisting, even boring book that forces us to stay in our seats for a minute and chew before we swallow. When we feel overstimulated and undernourished by our social media connections, we can retreat with our books and into ourselves. Longreads and Electric Literature have even published reading lists for people in search of solitude. In a world where we seem never to be alone but also never to be truly together, retreating into the solitude of a library, office, or your own bed to read alone feels like a rare treat.

In contemporary culture, it sometimes feels like it doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually read and understood something. What matters is how quickly you can extract something to disagree with or contradict. In“Listen Up Bitches, It’s Time to Learn Incorrect Things About Someone You’ve Never Heard Of,” Rosa Lyster describes a trend she calls “Buckle up Twitter,” in which an irate Twitter user rants on a lengthy thread about how one particular historical figure is solely responsible for a dangerous or pervasive problem in the present day. The trend depends on the assumption that the ranter’s Twitter audience has never actually read anything about the historical figure in question. And it depends on an oversimplified view of causation. Lyster ultimately suggests that the trend took off, not so much because people actually feel enlightened by a Twitter-user’s “call-out” of Beau Brummell (who is apparently responsible for current male fashion trends) but because they just think such rants are funny. Of greater concern is the other reason for the Twitter rant that Lyster identifies: that people find comfort in these oversimplifications because they free us from having to deal with nuance and from learning actual history.

We can easily identify the oversimplified, “Buckle up Twitter” reading as bad reading. But we can also exhibit this same kind of toxicity in academia in a slightly different form. Through critique, we aim to master the text and prove that we saw what no one else could see. In critique, we find a marriage of slow and reactionary reading. Here, I refer to critique as a specific mode of reading that requires “skepticism, knowingness, and detachment,” as Rita Felski has written. Felski describes critique as having a “prevailing ethos” of “againstness.” Critiquers read carefully, with precision, but they also read suspiciously, waiting to pounce on the text’s own lack of self-knowledge. The toxic side of critique allows us to hate what we read. It allows us to throw out anything that doesn’t conform to what we want to force it into.

Toxic critique and reactionary quick-reading are ways of reading to divide that ultimately end in reading alone by positioning the reader above and away from the text, rather than connected within it. These modes of toxic critique and reactionary quick-reading often aim to conquer the text or to assert the critiquer’s dominance over the text. Here, I should clarify that critique can also equip readers with important tools that allow them to read beneath a text’s ideology. When a reader critiques a racist or sexist text, that reader reads to unite across difference by revealing and breaking down barriers to equality and inclusion. That reader unearths the toxic ideology that lies beneath in order to productively break down barriers to solidarity. When we critique to build solidarity, we still read together, even if our reading involves breaking down. Reading together means understanding our slow, solo reading as preparation to re-enter the world, preparation to make our pieces of the world a little bit better. It also means reading simply to have an excuse to be together, even when we’re apart.

Which brings me back to my sister. We’re both finding places where we fit in our different graduate programs. But there’s not much common ground for us to find between our respective fields of English Literature and Gravitational Physics. One thing we’ve always agreed on is our reckless and totally unapologetic love for rom-coms, which is how we ended up watching a Jane Austen movie adaptation marathon over winter break. It was during The Jane Austen Book Club that my sister suggested we have our own Jane Austen Book Club. I can’t tell you what it meant to my English major heart when my Physics major sister came up with this idea, and when she texted me a month later, “Omg, I love reading. It’s a whole new me!” For us, reading Jane Austen together, as much as it is about how much we love Mr. Darcy, is also about having a reason to call each other every Sunday night. It’s about having something in common that’s a little bit bigger than ourselves. Sometimes we’ll talk for more than an hour, gushing, pondering, and yes, critiquing. Other times we’ll talk about our lives and how our weeks have been, only remembering to discuss Fanny Price at the end of the conversation (lol classic Fanny Price). In either case, we’re reading together, even though we’re far apart. And, at its core, I maintain that this is where good reading can always lead us: back to each other.

Good reading helps us unfurl. We can get so twisted up, looking in a million different directions on Twitter. And the quick, frenetic connections we make on Twitter can certainly have their place. But when we step back to read slowly, we can find connections to each other that we might otherwise have missed. Reading slowly helps us read together because it helps us sit with the text before we respond to it, leading us back toward connections within the text and even pointing us toward connections outside the text. In contrast to the bad reading that Lyster identifies in her criticism of the “Buckle-up Twitter” rant, slow reading that leads us toward connection is not a performance. When we read slowly and together, we avoid some of the pitfalls that quick, reactionary reading can cause, and we come back to each other, looking for ways to build instead of break, while understanding that sometimes you have to break before you can build.

Rachel Canter is a second-year graduate student and teaching assistant in English Literature at Wright State University. She is primarily interested in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century women novelists and literary translations.

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