Why Read? – Diane Elam

Academics in the humanities spend a high percentage of their time reading. The obvious results of this potentially messy habit are walls overrun by bookcases and desks buried in paper, no matter how faithful the allegiance to the recycling bin or how brutal the constraints of the budget. And yet for all of the time and space devoted to reading, reflections on its nature and necessity appear less frequently than they might. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that unlike writing, the more glamorous relative that nicely gives rise to pages, or now computer screens, filled with productive looking type that can be turned over to quality assessment exercises, reading looks like it produces nothing at all. Nothing much seems to be happening when someone reads, nothing much seems to call out for reflection. Quality assessors do not come in to watch us read, and if they did it would be a pretty scary thought.

We should not, however, ignore the work of reading, even if – and probably especially because – it does evade assessment. I want to argue that it is precisely this seeming nothingness of reading that should concern us today. Because we now live in the age of increased educational efficiency, of quality assurance, of measurable results meant to show that higher education is actually doing something, the potential radicality of the nothingness of reading is one of the real stakes in the current crisis in the university. That higher education should still concern itself with so much unmeasurable nothingness in an era of increasingly quantifiable somethings is not a foregone conclusion. Calls to assessment are neither mere inconveniences, nor simply more paperwork to be suffered. Rather they are the result of a larger change taking place today in the university, a change that more than ever will ask us to justify why we read and why anyone should continue to study literature. So while assessments, on the one hand, seem to leave reading alone – reading is not overseen and scored directly (literacy tests not withstanding), on the other hand, assessments demand that the work of reading be brought under control by implicitly suggesting that if it is not measurable, it is not worth funding, hence not worth doing. In such an economy, potentially any argument for the worth of reading would also be one for finding a way to measure the work that it accomplishes, translating it into RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) scores, teaching assessments, and league standings tables. The promise is that we will have made reading measurable and therefore meaningful.

This should give us cause for concern, because what lies behind the ‘economy of assessment’ is the fact that the university’s link with culture is dissolving. As we approach the millennium, culture, as Bill Readings persuasively argues in The University in Ruins, is no longer the raison d’etre of the university: the university is ceasing to produce cultured subjects for a nation state, and more and more is setting out to train consumer subjects for the trans-national world of business (Readings, 1996). This change in purpose is certainly blatantly manifest in a host of vocational degree schemes: straight forward business schools but also courses such as town planning, engineering, hotel management and golf course studies. It is just as easy to see in government attempts to persuade industry to subsidise higher education. Corporate money should, the politicians urge, directly fund the university, while the university, holding up its part of the bargain, should provide research services and train students to take their place on the corporate ladder.1 In Britain this has led to a slogan approach to education promoted equally by Labour and the Tories: ‘Training today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs’. ‘The University of Industry working for you’.

In short, a university education is increasingly becoming a vocational exercise, and why reading – especially why reading literature – might matter is no longer a self-evident proposition in market driven universities. What does a degree in literature deliver? What technical (transferable) skills are literature students actually acquiring? What kind of gainful employment can they expect from spending their time reading? What corporation will want to get behind the sponsorship of the study of literature? How can those small seminars and tutorials, upon which many literature programs have relied and in which the real work of reading gets done, be justified when other disciplines can dispense their information to auditoriums filled with cost effective hundreds? These are precisely the questions asked by the new corporate university, which dresses in the gowns of profit margins and wears the mortar board of responsibility centred management. The cost effective McUniversity of the future may well leave reading literature off its menu if it cannot answer these questions and find ways to make literature an even more efficient course of study that can be properly measured, marketed and applied in business. Scores must be quantified, successes rewarded, failures punished.

Such trends are probably more evident in North American universities, which have already traveled farther down the corporate road of education. But there are many signs that the same thing is happening here. The new corporate university is a measurable formula, a formula of measurement, upon which an export ban has not been imposed. Tutorials and small seminars are already fast becoming a thing of the past, large lectures the necessary fiscal way forward. Whether we like it or not, expanding student numbers – our ongoing crisis of overpopulation that forces universities to teach too many students with too few resources – is precisely what will save us in the short term. As long as we can come up with the proper accounting tricks, as long as we can attract a large number of students to whom we can efficiently and cost-effectively sell our product, we will not have to explain ourselves; we will not have to argue the case too carefully for why reading matters. Literature in its large dispenser format is enthusiastically marketed by the corporate McUniversity. At the moment, we may think that departments of English literature are safe: we are cheap to run; we attract students; we appear to do little lasting harm, ensuring that our students graduate into the literate workforce. However, if a degree in English literature ceases to be flavour of the year, if we find ourselves losing out on our market share alongside other consumer castoffs like classics and increasingly philosophy, given away like forgotten fashion mistakes, we will be in trouble. There are only so many efficiency gains that can be made, only so many budgetary problems that can be solved by increased student numbers. In this regard, literature is hardly an isolated or special case. Market forces are blind to disciplinary differences, and departments that do not measure up are increasingly being cut to shore up the university budget. What precisely is an essential discipline within a university? What would happen if this question were to be answered purely on the basis of fiscal criteria – those departments that made the most money would be the most essential?

With increasing frequency, these very questions are the focus of administrative planning for higher education. And while I do not want to suggest that university graduates should be destined, by contrast, always to join the ranks of the unemployed, that there is not a place for vocational education, that reading literature is never useful, or even that universities cannot at times be run more efficiently to the benefit of all, there does exist a danger in so carefully directing a course of higher education toward what job opportunities it will produce or funding degree schemes solely in relation to the number of seats they can fill in a lecture hall. The university ex facto has become market driven by the very forces of capitalism of which one might have hoped it could have been more critical.

To counter the force of a market driven academy, however, is a difficult business, and in the case of literary study I would not suggest as a defence simply more precise answers to the question: ‘What is literature?’ This is not likely either to increase sales – and that is what they are now – or arrest the progress of the free market economy in academia. Significantly, literature has tended to thwart such metaphysical enterprises that seek to define it anyway. So if we are not to be merely at the mercy of student numbers and administrators always attempting to turn what it is we do into a quantifiable, cost effective something, we need to turn our attention not to finding out what precisely literature is but rather to thinking about what it does, what our reading makes happen. Literature will continue to be important not because we need to describe what it is, but because we value what it does. That more students choose Literature than Leisure Studies as their university course may suggest that they, at least temporarily, feel this way too. That those of us teaching literature still imagine ourselves as more than modest cost centres with a profit margin based on producing white collar paper pushers, who can say something vaguely intelligent about Jane Austen at the office cocktail party, remains an encouraging sign.

Having said this much, it might seem that the best case for reading and for the study of literature in the university would most effectively be argued in political and/or ethical terms – that the emphasis on the nothingness of reading should be placed alongside its political and ethical effects. To some extent, this is true, and it is significant, I would say, that in the last few decades arguments for the political and ethical importance of reading literature have been made with increasing frequency across the political spectrum. Marxists have promised to unveil literature’s political unconscious and show how it either is or is not in the service of class bound ideology. Feminists, postcolonial theorists, and proponents of lesbian and gay studies have rewritten literary histories and proposed new methods of reading, which often focused attention on the vital role literature plays in the arena of identity politics. Meanwhile, political conservatives have argued in favour of preserving a tradition of literature that transcends the concerns of individual groups and universally represents the best of what has been thought and said.

But even beyond particular reading strategies of individual works of literature, it is fair to suggest that the very category of literature is a politically inflected one. As Masao Miyoshi clearly puts it, ‘literature as a discipline is a historical product of European colonialism and nationalism’ (Miyoshi, 1991: 17). The extent to which this is true can more clearly be seen if we take an example that is close to home: the case of ‘English Literature’. The investment that colonialism and nationalism had and continues to have in the politics of literature is clearly underlined by what exactly is meant by the qualifying term ‘English’. Does ‘English literature’ refer simply to literature written in the English language? Does ‘English literature’ have a special connection to England, and if it does not, why do the vast majority of the texts studied in the so called ‘national curriculum’ in Britain today tend also to be works by authors from England? What does this say to those of us teaching in Wales? Or what does it say to teachers in Scotland, whose educational system stands apart from such proclamations made in the name of a non-existent national unity? Is there actually an underlying connection between English literature, English culture, and English national identity?

That such questions still need to be asked today suggests that the national and colonial dimensions of the politics of reading literature are far from over. Arguments in favour of reasserting national identities and national cultures, which often strongly appeal to the importance of studying national literature, continue to be made in influential quarters. To some extent these are offset by talk of globalism, cosmopolitanism and a new Europe, which is linked to increased interest in comparative literatures, minority literatures, and interdisciplinary programs that integrate a variety of literatures into different cultural and historical contexts. Yet it is risky to draw too many political conclusions here, putting conservative politics simply on the side of national literature curriculums. For instance, as Ngugi reminds us, nascent states have often asserted their rights to teach a national literature in the name of political radicalism, while globalism can have a conservative side that elides differences (Ngugi, 1986). It is difficult, if not impossible, to claim a single politics of reading literature.

Likewise, it would not be possible to outline a single ethics of reading literature. Debates have raged on about whether a particular work of literature is or is not morally improving, and more generally whether literature itself is moral. Spirited defences of literature’s capacity to represent the good life have rested alongside claims that literature should be censored in accordance with its ability to prove morally corrupting. Meanwhile, other critics have asked us to consider the possibility that there is an ethical responsibility connected with the act of reading itself; we can be under an obligation to read and to read well.

In short, there are volumes of examples to be cited in the name of cataloguing the various ethical and political defences for reading literature. Yet however varied and volumous these examples would prove to be, the one thing they all share is a belief that reading matters, that literature can have an important effect. It would seem, then, that we need look no further to find the case for why we should read literature, in a university, today. Regardless of the specific political or ethical climate, it would appear that reading literature would find its defender. Almost. While political and ethical defences of reading literature certainly stand to have an effect, the danger remains that reading literature could still be successfully written out of the curriculum. The various arguments spanning conflicting political/ethical positions could potentially cancel each other out, giving ground to the power of market forces that move in other directions. In the eyes of the corporate university, political and ethical effects of reading literature are not inevitably valuable. Like anything else, they need a market share; they need to show a profit. If, for instance, the Labour government’s manifesto for higher education continues to be articulated in terms of ‘investing in human capital’, there is nothing to suggest that inevitably that investment will be best managed by reading literature at university. The politics of profit and loss could just as easily decide that ‘human capital’ is best maximised by teaching accounting skills or computer programming.

Moreover, as a guaranteed, profit making outcome, the political and ethical effects of reading literature would not amass a good track record over time, because reading literature will not necessarily make us think politically or act ethically. Or to be very simplistic, it could not guarantee, say, better voters or more moral people at the end of its degree scheme. Certainly, reading literature might happily have these benefits, but there is no guarantee. Reading does not produce any one thing all the time; it guarantees neither political self-consciousness nor moral awareness. In fact, reading literature does not necessarily have any immediate applicability whatsoever. It has the great potential to be totally useless beyond the fact that it has potentially given rise to thought, which even itself might turn out to have been useless. Reading literature is not a guarantee; it is a possibility. For the most part, this is a strength and not a weakness. But a lack of immediate applicability is a strength only if the university values thought in and of itself, does not try to turn the potential nothingness of reading into a quantifiable, useful something – either to be sold for profit or politically bartered.

In saying this much, a word of warning is in order. What I am precisely talking about is a limit case, and it is, of course, possible to get carried away with the value of uselessness; such is the playful suggestion in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, where one of its characters plans to reform higher education by founding ‘A School of Comparative Irrelevance, where useless or impossible courses are given. The School’s aim is to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.’ Courses include ‘Urban Planning for Gypsies’, ‘The History of Antarctic Agriculture’, ‘Contemporary Sumerian Literature’, ‘Crowd Psychology in the Sahara’, and ‘Montessori Grading’ (Eco, 1989: 74-75). But oxymoronic jokes aside, there is still a real need for uselessness, even if it’s easier to parody than it is to spell out in terms of market research. Indeed, part of the problem inevitably will be convincing market-driven, corporate universities that thinking – that reading – is still needed in the face of its apparent uselessness and political nothingness. How can we explain that there really is a difference between the uselessness that is inherent in ‘the literature of the body’ and the uselessness of ‘contemporary Sumerian literature’?

That the university will in future accept the importance of such uselessness, that it will be a place in which thought is allowed and encouraged to take place, is certainly not assured. As I have suggested already, valuing thought and reading that cannot be understood in terms of quantification and use runs counter to the mission of corporate universities driven by the twin engines of efficiency and vocational applicability of their courses of study: acquisition of information and skills takes precedent over thinking. The crisis that is facing the university today, as Readings has also suggested, will require that we think about thinking itself.2 The real problem has become how to read and think within an institution that increasingly makes thought and reading more difficult to do because they are seen as less and less necessary.

I would like to suggest that to argue effectively for the necessity of thought and reading in the university is actually to stop universities from becoming entirely market-driven corporations. The real issue is to find ways to create and to retain spaces for thinking and for reading within the university. This means not ignoring the changes that are currently taking place within the university, while also not becoming caught in the twin nets of debilitating cynicism and blind despair. Some days this is pretty hard to do. I would even hazard to say that lately it is getting more difficult. Part of the difficulty is that there is no instruction booklet that explains how new spaces for thinking and reading are to be constructed within the university.

Yet I do believe that the study of literature can continue to create some of those spaces; fostering thought through reading is one of the crucial things that literature can continue to do. In effect, there is a multiple articulated relationship between reading literature, the university and thinking. If in future the university continues to offer literary studies, if reading literature remains a possibility, that will be because the university still values thinking as an end in and of itself, because the nothingness of reading will not have to be justified in terms of a quantifiable something. But likewise one of the reasons that the university will value thinking is because the reading of literature for one has insisted that it do so.3

These are still very general claims, and I would like to end with more precise remarks about the kind of thinking that the reading of literature stands to encourage.4 Reading literature can unite thinking with questioning in a way that brings to bear the temporality of thinking. Literature makes the fact that something remains – that there is a residual, a leftover from the past demanding to be thought as a question in the future. For literature, thinking is an end, but thinking itself is without end. Literary thinking is bound, marked by time, but that thinking is not exhausted within time. Something always remains, a literary leftover, waiting to be read. It is important here to recall a similar connection that Maurice Blanchot draws between questioning and thinking. He argues that ‘the question is the desire for thought’ (Blanchot, 1993: 12; Blanchot, 1969: 14). The lack in the question seeks to be made up for through the question’s demand for a response, although that response should not be understood as a final answer. ‘The question awaits an answer, but the answer does not appease the question, and even if it puts an end to the question, it does not put an end to the waiting that is the question of the question’ (Blanchot, 1993: 14; 1969: 16). Blanchot is explaining more precisely the nature of the crisis that haunts literary studies: the activity of reading literature is not the pursuit of a final answer, even to the question ‘What is literature?’ Rather reading is more precisely, a re-thinking, a literary questioning that continues to question the question, including the very question of literature itself. Or to put this another way, the nothingness and potential uselessness of reading keeps thought open as a question, as questioning, so that even answers are part of questioning. If I could call on Heidegger for a moment here, this would be to argue that ‘the answer to the question, [of reading] like every genuine answer, is only the final result of the last step in a long series of questions. Each answer remains in force as an answer only as long as it is rooted in questioning’ (Heidegger, 1971: 70-71). It could be said, then, that the reading of literature will continue to happen in so far as something remains to be thought as a question. Indeed, as Blanchot suggests, ‘literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question’. We could go further and say that the reading of literature will continue to happen in the university only if literature can remain a question there (Blanchot, 1995: 300; Blanchot, 1949: 293). Literature as a question will not call for uniform reading: the work of reading literature does not, and will not, constitute a unified body of methodologies or effects: all readers will not be reading the same things in the same ways, asking the same questions, thinking the same things. I am neither reinventing Stanley Fish’s notion of an interpretative community of readers twenty years down the road, nor reasserting the place of canonical criticism, nor even outlining a standard plan of curricular study within the university. This will not have been a manifesto for reading.

Now none of what I have been suggesting here is as easy to understand as the slogans of excellence and productivity offered as the daily fare of the academic market place. Nor is it probably as satisfying as promoting the reading of literature purely on the basis of its political efficacy and moral relevance. Yet it is crucial to argue that reading remains important precisely because it might give rise to thinking, even though it risks proving to be only a useless nothing. We do not have to give in to a future where higher education can only understand itself as a matter of profit margins, efficiency rankings and vocational expertise. Our time will not be well spent merely accepting the corporate terms of the debate about higher education and then endlessly refining definitions of ‘graduateness’. We need to argue that there should be spaces for waste, for potential uselessness, for seeming nothingness, because these are the very same spaces that create the possibility for thought. ‘Why read?’ is not an idle question, and if thinking is to be valued, we should remember that it is worth our while in the university to continue to voice good answers.


1. This is a trend we should all be worried about, and some of its immediate effects can be clearly seen when the sciences are asked to shift from basic to corporate funded, applied research. What if a company pays for results and then does not like what it gets? Objectional research results can simply be suppressed by those who paid for them in the first place. Pharmacology has alarming stories of just this sort.

2. See The University in Ruins (Readings, 1996). Especially chapter 10.

3. If universities cease to value thought, turn their attention away from reading, the repercussions will obviously be felt more widely across the university curriculum. I have focused here on literary studies, because it is a limit case in so far as ‘the literary object’ lacks any clear metaphysical properties and is entirely an object constructed through reading.

4. For a fuller account of this argument see my ‘Literary Remains’ (1995).


Blanchot, M. (1949) La Part du feu. Paris: Gallimard.

Blanchot, M. (1969) L’Entretien infini. Paris, Gallimard.

Blanchot, M. (1993) The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Blanchot, M. (1995) The Work of Fire. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Eco, U. (1989) Foucault‘s Pendulum. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc.

Elam, D. (1995) ‘Literary Remains’, Oxford Literary Review 17, 1-2: 145-156.

Heidegger, M. (1971) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Miyoshi, M. (1991) Off Centre: Power and Cultural Relations BetweenJapan and the United States. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Ngugi, W. T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey Ltd.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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