Laura Dzubay: The idolatry of reading and its dangers

Sunday, February 17, 2019 - 5:37pm

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I recently got hooked on “You,” Netflix’s late-2018 thriller drama about a bookstore manager named Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”) and his girlfriend, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail, “Once Upon a Time”). Joe seems like the perfect boyfriend, but is actually an obsessive stalker who murders those close to Beck in an effort to “protect” her from the chaos of her own life. Joe’s micromanaging and fake feminism are carefully realized by Badgley and the show’s creators, and delightfully infuriating to watch — but strangely, the character who often annoyed me the most in the moment was Beck herself.

Beck is a student in NYU’s MFA program, the avid reader and aspiring writer to Joe’s bookstore manager. Their shared versedness in literature is the pedestal from which they constantly judge other people, whether explicitly or inadvertently, starting from the very first scene when they meet. Beck approaches Joe, and he wonders via voice-over whether the book she’s looking for will essentially deem her worthy of further attention; when she asks after the Paula Fox novel “Desperate Characters,” he is impressed, and the viewer registers an early victory for Beck in the eyes of Joe. Maybe this is the problem: Beck’s character is introduced largely through Joe’s eyes. No wonder a misogynist would see her as ideal: She reads “obscure” old literature, secretly hates her vapid friends and can’t concentrate on her own writing worth anything unless Joe is around.

The thing that annoyed me about Beck’s portrayal in “You” is her approach to the world of writing. I am an aspiring writer myself, and I know a lot of other people in those same shoes, many of whom have wildly different approaches to creating and consuming literature. I have never met anyone in real life whose approach is like Beck’s. That’s not a compliment. Beck skates by in her MFA program in a way that artists of any type are often conditioned early against doing; she’s the type of writer who sits around waiting for inspiration to strike. Any writer who is good enough to get into NYU’s MFA program ought to also be serious enough to be able to crank out a story for a workshop, inspiration or no, and yet when Beck is told to write one, she acts as if she’s never done this before and simply decides not to do it. The professor accepts this and says they can reschedule Beck’s workshop for a different day.

Moreover, historical writers and works are romanticized, while modern writers are brushed off. For instance, Beck’s classmate Blythe (Hari Nef, “Assassination Nation”), perhaps one of the best characters in the show, is praised constantly, but her impressiveness seems tied more to the strange concepts behind her stories and her superficially interesting, “worldly” background (in contrast to Beck’s own New England childhood), than to the depth of her thought. This ties into a problem that “You” has with the image of “writers” and “readers,” exemplified in a different moment when Joe texts Beck to asks what she’s currently reading. She sends back a picture of a book resting on her bare legs, post-shower.

“You”’s approach seems to me like, and hopefully is, a commentary upon this way of looking at reading and writing, holding Joe and Beck alike under criticism. Yet it is still off-putting, because the portrayal of the literary world in “You” is so instantly recognizable as the dreamy world of reading and writing that many people often incorrectly picture. The classicist view of literature is so often confined to the sorts of masterpieces Joe and Beck so often reference, like “Wuthering Heights.” When many people picture curling up with a book for fun, they picture the same leatherbound, beautiful, carefully maintained hardbacks that Joe keeps stored up in the glass prison below his bookstore. These — Joe preaches repeatedly to Beck and to the audience — are classics; they are works by the masters, some of the best pieces of art humanity has ever produced. There’s a reason the image of the Mooney’s bookstore resonates with us: We’ve seen it before, time and time again.

But the show skims past some of the problems with this romantic view of literature. The “classics” don’t include everybody; in fact, they have traditionally been extremely exclusive. I would argue that some of the most exciting, dynamic and interesting things that have ever happened in the world of literature are happening right now. We’re so lucky to live in an era when so many literary boundaries are being pushed in terms of subject matter, genre and style. We’re lucky to live in a time when the exclusive past of the literary canon is finally being recognized with, and the voices of queer writers, writers of color, female writers, indigenous writers and more writers from traditionally marginalized communities are starting to be amplified. “You”’s treatment of the literary community — via, again, the purposefully distasteful characters of Joe and Beck — makes no mention of this, choosing instead to elevate the names of long-dead writers whose voices have been glorified plenty enough anyway.

The fetishization of reading is dangerous because, at the risk of sounding extreme, it makes reading mean nothing; it strips the things that make reading what it is — its precision and sensitivity, its union of the past and the future and its feeling of a continued tradition, its overwhelming capacity for empathy-building— of their weight, swapping them out in favor of nostalgic and flowery images. The hot guy in a New York City bookstore who’s impressed that you’ve heard of Hemingway. The hot girl in a huge city apartment who calls herself a writer, but can’t seem to work past her own lack of ideas.

I realize a single person like me hardly has the right to personally measure the perimeter of the literary world and proclaim my own vision of it the correct one. I only wish that in a world where, on the whole, reading is only superficially fashionable (if I had more time here, I might delve into the whole Rupi Kaur conversation), representations of the literary world were less often romanticized and idealized, and more often reflective of the real vibrancy that characterizes that community from the inside out.