In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo models how to read not just books but also history, culture and the world with an eye toward understanding how the ideas that inform our reading lives came to be.
You write that your book’s title, How to Read Now, is both a comment and a question. Can you say more about that?
Like I say in the introduction, there’s some real ambivalence on my part in the title: a reluctance, a resistance even, to writing a book about the racial politics of our reading culture that might be assumed to serve as essentially a CliffsNotes on anti-racism for the edification of white readers. That being said, as a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique. (To paraphrase a favorite T-shirt I once bought from The Cut, which quotes art critic Jerry Saltz, “Criticism Never Sleeps,” lol.)
But at its core, the title feels most of all like the beginning of an investigation, an exploration. Someone once asked me if I felt that writing books was therapeutic, and—if we’re staying within the realm of clinical metaphors—I don’t feel that the relationship I have to the books I write is a therapeutic one exactly. By which I mean that I know the curative capacities of writing are possible, of course, but in my experience, they’ve always been unpredictable, unreliable, idiosyncratic; personal and fragile. What feels truer to me is that writing books feels laparoscopic, like exploratory surgery. Something’s going on; you’re not entirely sure what. You have to go in to find out.
You write that books were a waypoint on your journey to becoming a reader. Why is reading bigger than books?
While I was lucky enough to have one parent who was a voracious, mostly self-taught reader who passed his love of reading down to me, the majority of the people in my family would never characterize themselves as readers. In fact, in a larger immigrant family, the older generation’s confidence in reading either Tagalog or English is shaky. That said, those same people were some of the best readers of the world I ever knew or will ever know. They taught me by example how to read my way through the world: how they gauged interactions with a boss, how they sighed after a film, what places in the world they built internal altars to, what losses in the world they mourned. Like I say in the book, I don’t want a book called How to Read Now to speak only to people who had the largely middle-class benefit of the education and leisure space that allows people to become not just literate but literary-minded; but equally, I don’t want it to let off the hook the people (like those I love and come from) who say that books aren’t for them, that reading culture isn’t for them. The truth is, we read and are being read by the world every day, in a million languages, in a million minute ways. But How to Read Now is a slightly easier title than How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus.
What’s one characteristic of a really good reader?
I think expecting that you could distill the essence of a really good reader to one characteristic is probably characteristic of a . . . not . . . great reader? I’m mostly kidding, but there’s some truth to the cheek. It’s a little like Logan Roy in “Succession,” which I just started watching (culturally I’m generally three to five years late on things), demanding his people tell him what the “protein” is in any given memo, discussion or article. That instinct to say, “Well, what’s the One Takeaway I can get from this?” is the driving force of reading under neoliberal capitalism: reading as a form of market competition and resource extraction, collecting pedagogical or ethnographic data—which is how so many writers of color, in particular, are typically read by white readers in this industry—as opposed to reading as a carving out of a uniquely intimate, uniquely vulnerable space in the world, in which a reader is as laid bare to a book as the world of a book is laid bare to her.
What’s one way that you have changed as a reader over time?
I think the most stark way I’ve changed is that I try to read more slowly—which, for someone who was the proverbial bookworm, a real devourer of literary worlds, hasn’t been easy. For my entire life, I’ve been someone who’ll read anywhere; most of my books as a kid had food stains on them from reading while I ate. Family members used to make fun of how they’d never see my face because it was always behind a book. And now, of course, with the advent of reading on your phone, it never ends. You’re always reading an article, falling asleep in bed reading The Age of Innocence on the Kindle, reading a friend’s PDF proof, reading a Reddit thread on how to find a Legendary Animal in Red Dead Redemption 2 or how to get through the Yiga Clan Hideout in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, reading another article on post-radiation care for senior dogs. (I adopted a senior German Shepherd a year and a half ago, my beloved Xena. She just underwent surgery and radiation, so that takes up a lot of my reading at the moment.) I’ve also never had strict taste boundaries when it came to reading. There was never highbrow or lowbrow; everything was on the table, everything was there to be read. So trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.
“As a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique.”
You write that white supremacy is the “rot at the core” of the publishing industry and position this book as a reckoning. This reminds me of the book’s cover, which features a bomb in the O of the word Now; in the acknowledgements, you call the cover “tough, bold, and literally incendiary.” What’s one conversation that you hope blows up because of this book?
Going back to resisting the practice of reduction to the One, I’m going to say that for every essay in the book, there’s a conversation—and yes, potentially an incendiary conversation, as the best ones can be—to be had. A conversation about the hypocrisies of reading as an empathy machine, when we demand the safari treatment—translations, glossaries, maps—from writers of color yet bestow full artistic impunity on white artists. A conversation about the national myths we ask our monuments, our parks, our land to tell us, and the fury that erupts when people who’ve been expunged from those myths tell their own stories about how those monuments, those parks, that land came to be. A conversation about whiteness in the world of science fiction and fantasy, especially with respect to fables of oppression, difference and dystopia, inspired by the marginalized experiences of people of color, who are then erased from the tale. A conversation about the great presumed oracles of California, such as Joan Didion, and the settler colonial history that inescapably makes up the foundation of her work and worldview, not to mention the readers who venerate her. A conversation about writing pedagogy in an academic institution, especially one that will not protect its students from sexual harassment and assault, and its connection to other forms of silencing, intellectual and otherwise, in the power dynamics of a classroom. A conversation about the paucity of Representation Matters Art, and the failures of the drive toward positive representation generally. A conversation about our classics, and how they become so, and just what incursions we might make into the future of those classics.
Most of these questions do have a common thread, of course: Why do we read the way we do? How on earth did we get here? And how can we imagine—creatively, culturally, sensually, politically—an elsewhere; an otherwise?
You write that acknowledging politics in literature—such as the everyday presence of colonialism in fairy tales like “Cinderella”—is an act of expansion that opens up conversations rather than shutting them down. Why do you think some readers are so resistant to these kinds of conversations, especially when dealing with works by white authors?
This isn’t a great mystery, is it? Why do we think some people are resistant to critical race theory, an utterly benign label—much like “antifa”—that has been deformed and fetishized into demonic proportions by a politically successful and financially rewarded far-right white supremacist cultural lobby? Why do we think those same people are perfectly accepting of the white supremacist paranoia of espousing White Replacement Theory? The discussion makes me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s great line from Lucy, when the narrator wonders about her white employer who (in a familiar move) dubiously claims to have Native ancestry: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”
Ultimately we can’t keep rehashing—re-diagnosing, to go back to the clinical metaphors—the whys of white supremacy, white fragility, white grievance. It’s asking people of color to waste their time getting embroiled in bad faith process arguments.
People don’t like to talk about the history of empire and enslaved labor that underpins the Regency world either, including the work of Jane Austen, because it interrupts their romantic fantasy of white gentility and interrupts their ability to project themselves apolitically into that world. So we come up with arguments like “applying postcolonial theory to Austen is anachronistic!” despite the fact that Regency scholars like Patricia A. Matthews have shown us that abolition was a widely known topic of debate in Austen’s era and that Austen’s peers wrote abolition literature, wrote about interracial relationships in their fiction, etc. It’s not unlike how the white marble statues of Greek gods were fetishized by English and German classicists to corroborate stories about antiquity as a romanticized vision of pure, noble whiteness, conveniently leaving out the fact that all of those statues had, in their time, been painted a riot of colors. So what are people really invested in when they resist acknowledging these historical facts? Is it really Austen? Is it really Greek myth? Or is it, rather, the story they’ve been allowed to believe about themselves, and their world, through these deliberate interpretations and elisions?
“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.”
You are best known for writing fiction, especially your acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart. How to Read Now is your first nonfiction book, and there’s a narrative quality to these essays, a feeling of following an ever-developing line of thought. Which of your skills as a fiction writer did you bring to crafting these essays?
I was just joking to someone—they were asking if writing a second book was easier, having already written a first—that I don’t know if any book helps you write the next one, really. With each book, what you learn is how to write that book, and that book specifically. The next is a new world, all over again. But if there is a narrative throughline to the book, an ever-developing line of thought, then it’s probably because, like I said earlier, I don’t really have fixed boundaries around my writing; much of what I bring to bear in a novel is also what I bring to bear as a critical thinker.
But it’s also just how the book came about. I wanted it to feel like entering into the personal history of someone’s reading life, while also following along as they think, ruminate, go deeper, swim in the dark, resurface again to take a breath. Some of my favorite nonfiction books read like that, like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, or John Berger’s many essays on art and politics. The critical thinking in those works often feels like narrative storytelling, not only because all those writers are also fiction writers themselves but also because the voices in their books are so singular, because the urgency in them is so alive, so intimate, so to the bone.
In your concluding essay, you talk about Homer’s “The Odyssey,” particularly the scene with the monster Polyphemus. Readers are taught to identify with Odysseus, but what would it mean to identify instead with Polyphemus?
Well, besides pushing back against the idea that Polyphemus is a monster at all—isn’t Odysseus, in the end, also a monster? Or is that just dependent on who’s telling the story?—I’m resistant to the impulse of identification as the rhyme and reason for reading. Parsing the characters we’re tacitly meant to view as heroic, parsing the characters we’re implicitly assumed to identify with, and parsing them in ways that include discussions of their power in relation to others—their class, their race, their logics of violence—asks us to go beyond identification. To make a reference to the title of my essay on Joan Didion, “Main Character Syndrome,” the need to identify with Odysseus or Polyphemus is ultimately still part of that main character syndrome logic of fiction, part of the heroic impulse or, alternately, what Ursula K. Le Guin called “the killer story” in her essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction”: “Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another [story], which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”
Getting out of the killer story, getting out of the bind of identification, getting out of the heroic impulse, lets us enter into the much thornier realm of intimacy, and even recognition—especially unforeseen intimacy and unforeseen recognition. The truth is, I think most of us recognize parts of ourselves in both Odysseus and Polyphemus. The parts of ourselves that are charismatic, that love to tell stories; the parts of ourselves that are adventurers, or unfaithful, or great thinkers, or irresponsible leaders, or distracted by our lusts, our ego. The parts of ourselves that know what it means to have one’s home invaded, exploited, rendered unlivable; the parts of ourselves that have sought revenge, that have chosen violence, that long for retribution; the parts of us that have never been the hero. It’s easy to say, “Well, let’s just switch and identify with Polyphemus instead.” But that way lies more killer stories. Instead, to read Polyphemus’ story with the same attention that we read Odysseus’ means we might actually be able to understand a story like his—might give it the time and space that we otherwise lavish upon the stories of characters like Odysseus. And in doing so, we might be able to read both stories more truly, more fully. If we stop looking for heroes, we might actually find people.