Think reading means you're smart? Think again

We tend to think that reading is a sign of intelligence, that we’re improved by it. But are our assumptions well-founded? Not really, according to an array of literary front-runners including Fran Lebowitz and Nick Hornby. Writer Barbara Nichol explores the assumptions we have about reading, readers and books in a three-part IDEAS series.

Fran Lebowitz, Nick Hornby and other literary front-runners explore our assumptions about reading

'I have a love of the book,' Fran Lebowitz tells IDEAS. The author, humorist, essayist, and lecturer is best known for her early best-selling collections of comic essays: 'Metropolitan Life' and 'Social Studies.' (Brigitte Lacombe)

* Originally published on May 13, 2020.

We tend to think that reading is a sign of intelligence, that we are improved by reading, that there are books we must read and others beneath our attention. 

But are our assumptions well-founded? Not really, according to an array of literary front-runners who speak with IDEAS contributor Barbara Nichol.

After a bookish conversation at a dinner party, she went on a quest to explore the assumptions we have about reading, readers and books. She sought out writers, critics, scholars and journalists: some of the keenest minds and most original thinkers in the literary world. 

And what they had to say is both surprising and delightful.

As she says, the problem with making radio with independent thinkers is that "it's like herding cats."

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"Don't expect a term paper," Nichol says. "Instead, expect a conversation overheard at a dinner party, and the off-the-cuff musings of uninhibited literary minds."

Here are some excerpts from the first of her three-part series, Reading with a Grain of Salt:

Fran Lebowitz
Author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies

"There's lots of ways that people are encouraged to read now that to me have nothing to do with reading. Such as that it's very important that when you read something, you identify with it. This didn't exist when I was young. 

"I didn't see myself in books when I was child, but it didn't occur to me that you were supposed to. And I hate to say this because I know she's the most beloved person on the planet Earth. But truthfully, Oprah Winfrey taught people to read this way. The great thing about Oprah Winfrey with her reading was that she got thousands and thousands and thousands of Americans to read books who never read a book before. She made it important to lots of people to whom it was never important. That's very good.

"But the way in which she read or talked about books is, I think, a very bad way. I would never think when reading [Herman] Melville to look for Fran, it would not occur to me. I'm pretty sure Fran's not in there. And that wouldn't be why I would read it."

Lebowitz says she loves seeing bookshelves stacked with books. 'I'm absolutely thrilled to see it.' (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Fran Lebowitz on her love of books, as objects:

"I love books as objects myself. I would say more than love because I would say I have given away every possibility of having any other money by housing these books. So I have a love of the book, a real love of it ⁠— and a love even of just seeing books. Even if I'm walking down the street and I look in the window of an apartment building and the curtains are open and I see a bookcase, I absolutely feel happier. 

"And certainly if I won the lottery, which I feel every week I'm about to do, I would buy books, you know, that were just very beautiful. I would buy them just because of the beauty. I mean, there's a lot of books that are just exquisite. I would love to own these books."

Nick Hornby
Author of High Fidelity and About a Boy

Nick Hornby on books teaching empathy: 

"I love reading. I read all the time. I've always read since I was a kid. And I can't think of a thing really that it does for us. You won't become a better person if you read me, you won't become a worse person if you don't read. 

"I know there's been lots of experiments to say that reading fiction teaches us empathy, for example, but I know plenty of people who don't read who are much more empathetic than people who do. I mean, surely the most empathetic people in the world should be fiction critics. And I can tell you, they don't seem very empathetic to me. 

Author of ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘About a Boy,’ Nick Hornby says there's no correlation between intelligence and the appetite to read. (Parisa Taghizadeh)
"There's a very strange paradox, I think, about reading at the moment, which is that people don't seem to have the time for it. But the books that they like seem to be incredibly long. When you go into an airport bookstore, there are quite a few doorstops in there, and I think the people want to read on holiday and get absorbed in an old fashioned way in the story that they're reading.

"I've found short stories, an incredibly hard sell. I tell people all about this wonderful writer called Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro, and they say, which novel should I read? And I say, 'well, you should read the short stories', and they immediately lose interest and it drives me a bit potty. You'd have thought that short stories would be ideal for this time when we are apparently so short of time and we want to fit something in between doing one thing and another thing. People seem to want the longer form. And of course everybody wants to write short stories because that's a way of being published in the first place, nobody wants to read them. And I think this is true of poetry, too, that everybody writes poetry. Nobody reads poetry." 

Nichol: How would you describe literary fiction? 

"It's usually something that doesn't sell so that that tends to define literary fiction.

"At one time I hadn't sold as many books in the US, so I was more literary. You could see it happening. It's quite interesting and I don't mind in the least, but it was definitely there." 

Stephen King has published 61 novels. (Bertrand Langlois/AFP via Getty Images, Anchor)

Nichol: There's a feeling that if a great many people like it, how good could it be? 

"That's absolutely true. And you can see the trouble that certain authors have had through selling huge amounts. I mean Stephen King, I know, gets very cross about not being thought of as a literary author. He's a very good writer, but no one will take him seriously because of the amount he sells and the amount that he writes or he feels that nobody takes him seriously.

"And J.K. Rowling, people were very rude about her here and all she did was saved literature. So I don't know what she'd done to deserve the rudeness. You can see it happening that the more ubiquitous somebody becomes, the less literary they are."

Abigail Williams
Professor of English at Oxford University

Abigail Williams is the author of ‘The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.' (St. Peter's College University of Oxford)
"Reading is just a sort of badge of being part of a class or being part of a moment where you say, 'yes, I've participated in that thing, too. I'm part of your group.' But you don't really say anything of substance about what that participation is involves. But, I mean, reading is difficult, isn't it? Because how do you know how someone reads unless they tell you about it? And then the very act of talking about what you're reading is a slightly performative statement. You know, it becomes a way of saying something about who you are and the kinds of values that you have."

On 'middlebrow modern fiction':

"It's is often marketed on the basis of the kind of empathy that we will feel for the character and the emotional life choices that they're making. I wouldn't want to be judgy. This is the right way to read a book and this is the wrong way to read a book. But if you're responding to it as an imaginative world that you've engaged in and want to discuss it on that level, then I think that's fine." 

John Carey
Emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University

"An argument for reading, which I put forward in [my book] What Good Is the Arts? is not that it's superior to other arts, but is different in that it deals in language ⁠— language without pictures encourages you to use your imagination. Language on the page is just a series of marks, ink marks. And yet what you have to do and what you do without thinking when you read a novel is transport yourself imaginatively to another place.

"You imagine what the characters are like, what they looked like. And you can test the fact that you do that by when you watch a film made based on a book you've read. You think, at least I think, they got it all wrong. That's not the way that I imagined the characters."

'If you can capture a child's imagination and make the child feel that a book is a friend and a delight ... you've changed someone's life,' says John Carey. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"The fact that reading stimulates the imagination seems to me very important — stimulates the imagination in a way which visual art does not. Visual art belongs to a much older part of the brain, of course, than language, which is quite a recent part of the brain. And visual art is enormously powerful. The temptation just to sort of watch pictures and not read is very strong. 

"So, yeah, I think imagination — trying to find a way into someone else's situation, imagining it, imagining how their motives work. That, I think is something that the novel in particular since the 19th century, has cultivated." 

Guests in this episode:

Fran Lebowitz is the author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, The Fran Lebowitz Reader and the children's book Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet The Pandas. Lebowitz is the subject of an upcoming Netflix series directed by Martin Scorsese.

Nick Hornby is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and award-winning author. Among his novels: Funny GirlHigh Fidelity, A Long Way DownAbout A Boy and Juliet, Naked. His non-fiction books include 31 Songs and Fever Pitch. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of his columns in The Believer magazine, for which he continues to write. He also wrote the Emmy Award-winning television series State Of The Union. In 2010, he co-founded the children's writing charity The Ministry of Stories in East London.

Sarah Bakewell is the author of biographical and philosophical works including At The Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

John Carey is the author of many books including The Accidental Professor: An Oxford Life in BooksWhat Good Are The Arts?The Intellectuals and The Masses, and A Little History of Poetry. He is the Emeritus Merton Professor of literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy and of The Royal Society of Literature.

Abigail Williams is a professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.

Caleb Crain is the author of the novels Necessary Errors and Overthrow, as well as the scholarly study American Sympathy: Men, Friendship and Literature in the New Nation. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, n+1, and The New York Times Book Review. His blog is called Steamboats Are Ruining Everything

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and recipient of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, which received the 2004 Ohioana Award for nonfiction, and On Conan Doyle, which received a 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His current project is an appreciation of late 19th and early 20th-century British popular fiction, tentatively titled The Great Age of Storytelling.

** This episode was produced by Barbara Nichol. Excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

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