Arts & Entertainment, Books

Finding the right place to read

A university lecture or a book club: By way of discussion, both bring the personal act of reading into an academic or social realm. However, these cultural spaces don’t necessarily motivate the same types of discussion. Barring other factors, like contextual formality or accessibility, an individual moves through these spaces carrying their own reading habits. In having to tailor their individual practices to a group setting, the question remains as to how a given setting influences the reader, and whether or not the reader feels satisfied by its literary provisions.

From a young age, Emily Matuska, U1 Arts, has always loved reading, and she came to McGill to pursue her passion.

“I’m just drawn to the ethereal beauty of language,” Matuska said. “Genuinely, as an art form, I think [that] I resonated with words and language more than anything else.”

Studying English literature at McGill, however, has so far been a double-edged sword for her. On the one hand, Matuska cherishes her classroom for situating her with like-minded students, all as eager to engage in thoughtful discussions about novels and poetry as she is. On the other hand, Matuska notes that the rigour of McGill’s academic atmosphere has demanded most of her readerly attention, often in ways opposite to how she engages with literature in her personal reading life. 

“There is a really huge focus on, ‘Why do you study literature, why is it important, why is it useful for society, how has it affected the world around you?’” Matuska said. “But that doesn’t have much bearing on why I would want to study literature. For me, and I think, for a lot of other literature students, you read because you love to read. […] I kind of get a little fed up with the emphasis [on] making it so didactic.”

In Matuska’s eyes, ascribing value to a text by virtue of its association to scholarly theories and traditions sterilizes literature as an artform. She worries that university, in part, depersonalizes the act of reading; in the classroom, discussions often weigh the importance of a text based on its impact in the canon, not by its capacity to deeply connect with someone, even if only on a personal level. 

Nevertheless, Matuska acknowledged that the serious study of literature requires concentrated discussions on canonized texts. This is especially the case at McGill, which has a highly traditional curriculum.

“You know [that] you miss things [when] just sticking to the canon but then you have to ask, how do you study time periods of literature if you don’t have a canon? How do you gain a certain knowledge of a vast expanse of time?” Matuska said. “I don’t think you really can.”

For those readers who seek community and intellectual stimulation outside of the classroom, the question remains as to where readers can find more diverse, informal spaces to share their love of literature. Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (D+Q), a staple of independent bookstores in Montreal since 2008, provides a possible solution to academic stiffling. 

Though the concept of a book club is certainly not exclusive to Librairie D+Q, the bookstore is unique to Montreal because of its sustained commitment to engaging communal literacy. Every month, in addition to author talks and book launches, Librairie D+Q hosts several different public book clubs in the Mile End. With clubs focusing on Indigeneous literature, science fiction, graphic novels, and children’s literature—among many others—each one highlights a diverse selection of contemporary authors across multiple media and genres. 

For Luke Langille, Librairie D+Q’s manager, the bookstore’s strengths come from its hybrid status, both in terms of the cohort of readers it draws in, and of the types of discussions it promotes. 

“The way I like to make my pitch […] to members of the public who have yet come to one of our book clubs is that it’s pretty laid back as an environment,” Langille said. “But it’s also somewhat similar to a studious discussion because of the fact that we have so many smart people who show up and talk about books. It’s really lively and informative. It’s stimulating enough […] but definitely a departure from an academic setting.”

While students do attend the book discussions, D+Q’s accessibility welcomes readers of all walks of life. Without the pressures of specific schools of thought for discussions to adhere to, the book club mediates conversations where opinions stem from personal insights in as much as they do academic ones. Without an evaluative or formal spirit, anecdotes related to the text’s plot bring as much to the conversation as comments about its creative use of form. What often motivates a lively discussion at D+Q, is therefore, a text’s relevance to the lives of the readers discussing it. That a reader can choose which books to read—thus curating their own syllabus for discussion—only adds to the possibility for genuine connection to a text, which often leads to impassioned discussion.

What book clubs have to contend with, and what universities tend to avoid, is the overriding conception that the most productive book discussions occur only within dedicated academic contexts. Taken to an extreme, value judgments about a reader’s connection to a text, improperly assumed based on the context in which they read that text, create a hierarchy of literacy. The notion of “proper reading” dismisses anything that doesn’t align with an institutionally established version of literacy as inferior. It renders the fundamentally democratic act of reading insulated, reserved for an imagined elite. 

Still, many educators recognize the value of less traditional forms of analysis. In an interview with //The McGill Tribune//, Professor Alexander Manshel, who teaches 20th Century and Contemporary American Literature at McGill, spoke about why the segmentation of reading is a fallacy. Invested readers hold an inherent bias to quality, no matter what they read. Rather than a ladder on which different types of readers or genres can be ranked, Manshel contended that all readers generally seek to be rewarded for the attention they devote to a text. 

“Whether you study the pinnacle of a canon […] or you study pulp fiction and best-sellers, both of which you can do in a classroom, close reading undergirds both of those practices,” Manshel said. “But I don’t think the university, while it does emphasize close reading, has a monopoly on close reading. […] It may not sound the same, it may not use the same terms, but close attention to detail is something that committed readers, whether inside the university or outside, employ in different ways.”

Different contexts value different kinds of reading, but that does not need to be seen as limiting to a reader’s connection with a text. It is inevitable that different contexts will stress different priorities as regards literature. Though the way in which discussions manifest may differ from place to place, close readerly attention—across all genres and contexts—will always deepen a reader’s connection with that text. The variety of contexts and genres that a reader will encounter, and the variety of discussions to participate in, are ultimately differences to be treasured.

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