I changed my mind, sort of. After thinking a lot about why we should read, and deciding (along with Fran Lebowitz and Diana Athill) that we should read in order to escape ourselves, I realize that reading is not so simple. That here I sit spouting nonsense about what reading is for from a position of enormous privilege (read: literacy, internet access, enough of my immediate needs met that I have time to sit here spouting nonsense) about what reading is for, but I'm missing most of the story.
It is annoying, I think, when people who spend most of their time gazing into mirrors anyway choose to see literature also as a reflective surface. This, of course, is what Fran Lebowitz called "a philistine idea... beyond vulgar." But I'm starting to realize that we're only talking about a fraction of the population when we generalize in this way. There are people with real problems (and I'm sorry quarter-life-crisis-ers, but I'm not talking about you!) for whom literature would be a most productive therapy, and also for whom this kind of personal engagement might be their gateway into books (which is splendid!). For anyone to devalue this kind of reading is incredibly patronizing, and stupid. (And perhaps to devalue any kind of reading is patronizing and stupid too).
I am learning more about the work done by Literature For Life, about their Book Circles whose participants have often never read an entire book before . The first book their groups read is The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, selected for being plot-driven and for the way in which the story might relate to readers' lives. Confidence grows from just one book, and so does interest, so that someone who has only read one book before might go and pick up another. So that, yes, a reader is born, but also these readers can begin to address their own problems with the advantage of some distance, that they gain access to a new way of examining and understanding their own experience. Language becomes a tool for self-expression. Subsequent books read become more challenging, but all of them connect back to the readers' experience somehow, and I see now how much is right with that.
Perhaps what I find most fascinating about the Lit. for Life Book Circles (whose participants are pregnant and parenting teenage mothers) is that these communities of readers approach literature from a wholly different angle than what I'm used to. We all like to go on and on about the use-value of literature, which for most of us is theoretical, but these readers put those theories in motion. These girls whose lives are changed by the power of one book-- they are a testament to what literature can do. Those of us who take books for granted can certainly learn something from that.
Anyway, there will be more learning to come. I'm going to be doing some work with Literature for Life over the coming months, and I look forward to sharing those experiences here.