Against reading lists
Today, I invite you to bear with me as I muddle through my first and maybe last post that is not just an excuse to point you towards some of my newly published writing—in fact, nothing of mine has come out since my last Substack—but rather an attempt to “do” some public philosophy. (Philosophers talk of “doing philosophy,” a locution I find weird and inelegant but can’t justify disliking.) The subject of this, my first public philosophical effort, is: what, exactly, irritates me so much about the reading lists and calls to “do the work” and so on that get circulated and re-circulated in cheesy infographic form after widely publicized tragedies and acts of violence? Examples include: antisemitism reading lists circulated after the Tree of Life shooting, feminism reading lists circulated after the Elliot Rodger shooting, reading lists about anti-Asian racism circulated in the past few weeks, reading lists about police and prison abolitionism circulated over the summer.
To be clear, as one must be on the internet, where everyone yearns to castigate and misinterpret: obviously, I do not have a problem with reading about antisemitism, sexism, anti-Black/anti-Asian racism, or prison/police abolitionism, all things I read about. I don’t have a problem with reading lists or syllabi in general, either. (The subject of this 'stack is a misnomer, really, because it’s not against reading lists, per se: it’s only against reading lists that stand in a special sort of relation to the news cycle.) I am a prolific Googler of syllabi whenever I want to get into a body of literature with which I’m not familiar: I’ve stalked syllabi about Hungarian literature, libertine literature, various sorts of philosophy I’m ignorant about, and so on, and I think finding a syllabus or reliable reading list is an excellent way into something before you know tons about it. (This is why professors should make syllabi public if possible!) What I have a problem with is something about the way recent calls to contemplation and reading are articulated, and with the assumptions that seem to underpin their articulation.
Why they irritate me is a question to which I really, as of now, at the start of writing, do not know the answer. The obvious explanations are factors but aren’t the whole story, the obvious explanations being: that cheesy infographics are superficial and, indeed, cheesy; that Instagram and Twitter aren’t fora conducive to substantive engagement, both because they are attention-gutting and because they are public and therefore anathema to the sort of mistake-making that always accompanies real thinking; that many of the responses I have in mind are too immediate and knee-jerk to be the products of real reflection; and that disseminating information scoldingly on social media is more a matter of performatively positioning oneself as right-thinking than it is an exercise in inviting other people to enter into a dialectic. All of this is clear and true enough. But I sense, inchoately, that there is something else about the reading lists that bothers me…
And I think my real frustration concerns the tacit assumption that our moral attention should be hostage to the news cycle. If thinking about, e.g., sexism and racism is morally obligatory, then thinking about these issues was morally obligatory before whatever event launched a thousand think pieces about them, and thinking about them will remain morally obligatory when the next event inevitably launches a thousand think pieces about something else. Thinking about these things—not devoting your life to their study, not reading nothing about anything else ever, but educating yourself about injustices in your society and doing whatever is within your power to alleviate them—is, in my view, morally obligatory. (The form injustice takes within a given society is of course historically contingent, but the duty to think about injustice and to try to address it is perennial.) It follows, given my unfashionable background commitments (morality is objective, blah blah), that it always was and always will be morally obligatory to think about injustice. And it follows in turn that you should read about racism or sexism not because there has now been some public disaster and people you went to college with are suddenly posting about it, but because you have always had a standing duty to do so.
I know that most of the people posting the reading lists would assent to this claim, in principle: none of them would say that anti-racism efforts only become important when there is a police shooting, or that anti-sexism efforts only become important after an incel goes on a rampage. But in practice, if you’re trotting out a new reading list every time there is a new piece of bad news, what you are in effect asking people to do is drop everything they’re reading or thinking about already so that they can suddenly start thinking about something else. This amounts to suggesting that the things they were already thinking about have somehow become less important, that the obligation to think about sexism or abolitionism has now expired because the issue of the day is some other thing. But have these “old” issues suddenly become irrelevant, just because some new bad thing has happened?
All of the reading-list-makers tend to write/talk as if their lists treat The Most Important Topic, Bar None—as if you have to read about this and only this, right now, or you’re morally remiss. But maybe people are still thinking about prison abolitionism, about which there is a lot of rich writing. Or maybe they’re still thinking about sexism, to which many people devote their whole careers! Or maybe they’re thinking about some other injustice that thankfully has not given rise to mass shooting yet, or is not such as to give rise to a mass shooting, but that still merits consideration and attention, like factory farming, or the suppression of dissent in Russia.
The breathless way in which these reading lists are trotted out—NOW is a great time to amplify X voices, NOW is a great time to read about X—makes it seem like the obligation to amplify or read stems from the widely publicized tragic event, not from long-standing facts about society, and that for this reason it is important that you should IMMEDIATELY amplify or read or do whatever, on pain of being a terrible person. But the recent event, however tragic or terrible, is not the source of the obligation—which means that you are obligated to read about sexism or racism or antisemitism or whatever to the same extent you ever were, and you were probably never obligated to drop all your abolitionism reading to read about something else right now or else!!!! After all, it cannot really be that what you were always obligated to do is devote every waking moment of your entire life to reading about every single urgent injustice; rather, what you were always obligated to do was to be reasonably educated about the the range of injustices in existence (a wide range!) and to work towards ameliorating the ones that resonate most with you and that you are best positioned to affect. There is a principle in moral philosophy, “ought implies can.” It’s pretty self-explanatory (I’ll spare you involved discussion of “implication”): the basic idea is that you cannot be morally required to do things you are incapable of doing. There is plenty for philosophers to quibble about here—incapable in what sense?—but I think that on any reasonable interpretation of “incapable,” people are pretty clearly incapable of dedicating their whole lives/brains at every moment to the many issues that might reasonably be classed as urgent, including but not limited to: distributive injustices and wealth inequality in America and globally, climate injustice in America and globally, American failures to provide healthcare and housing to many, American voter suppression, faulty American labor laws that stifle effective unionization campaigns, sexism in America and globally, racism in America and globally, transphobia in America and globally, homophobia in America and globally, colonialism and its legacy, animal abuse/factory farming, human rights abuses in Russia and China, antisemitism and neo-Nazism in Europe, pollution of the oceans, authoritarianism in Brazil and Hungary, etc, etc, etc, ETC!!!! These things are all important, but you simply cannot work your way through every reading list about all of these things at once. (And flitting from topic to topic is not a good way to learn about anything, anyway.) So it must be that the obligation you have always had is to do your best, by reading about some of these issues. And if this is what the obligation consists in, then you can satisfy it even if you don’t drop everything to buy every book on the hot new reading list, whatever it is, provided you are concerned and informed about injustices generally.
Of course, it may never have occurred to some people to think about antisemitism or sexism or prison/police abolition or racism before some cataclysmic event made its way onto the front page of the NYT. (Although frankly, it is pretty much impossible that most of the very progressive people I interact with on social media have never thought to read about these topics before, so I suppose I also wonder who these reading lists are for, exactly, at least when people I follow share them. But let’s set that aside.) To realize that there is something you should already have been thinking about, and to try to rectify your past failure to think about it, is admirable. But the reading-list-promoters do not take very much care to distinguish between realizing you should have been doing something all along and therefore should start doing it now, pursuant to the realization, and doing something now because a new obligation has come into existence. And the difference matters! If you are are in the business of fulfilling new obligations as they comes along, then you can just sit back and wait for the next tragedy, the next obligations that therefore arise, and the next bout of reading lists. But if you are in the business of fulfilling all your standing moral obligations, you should be actively asking yourself what injustices you have long been overlooking, news cycle notwithstanding.
In other words, if you have just realized that there is some very urgent atrocity that you have heretofore failed to think about, probably in large part because it was not widely discussed in the media or in your social circles, you should probably not respond by continuing to read about whatever Twitter tells you to read about this week. Instead, you should respond by taking a step back and asking yourself if allowing your moral attention to be directed by Twitter is a good strategy in the first place! I think it is not!
Interesting and insightful post. For what it's worth, I think that part of the prevalence of these "reading lists" may be that they serve (in part) as a means of providing certain people with a superficial gloss on the trendy issues of the day. So, for instance, just like it would be rather mortifying for a certain type of individual to mispronounce sopressata at an overpriced market, I think that some people feel like they need to have a glancing knowledge of few "essential" books discussing antisemitism, racism, criminal justice reform, etc. I doubt tons of people actually read the "5 essential books discussing prison abolition," but at least they know they can fake it a little by casually namedropping "Tanged up Blue," "Chokehold," or "Locked Up." (See I am guilty of doing this right now!! - I've glanced at those books because my wife has needed to read them for her work, but even though in reality I would not call myself an expert in any of these issues, I could probably "pass" as someone who is *very* interested in this topic if I ever felt the need to ward off a somewhat aggressive interloper during an awkward conversation). I may be speaking more for myself, but I do wonder to what extent these "reading lists" also serve this (admittedly cynical) purpose.
I also particularly wanted to flag this part of your essay: "Thinking about these things—not devoting your life to their study, not reading nothing about anything else ever, but educating yourself about injustices in your society and doing whatever is within your power to alleviate them—is, in my view, morally obligatory." I could not agree more with this sentiment, and I think that it provides yet another justification for reading fiction as well as nonfiction. I've noticed that most of these reading lists tend to be exclusively nonfiction, which is a pity because there are certainly many fictional works that can open one's eyes to injustices small-and-large. There are way too many examples for me to do justice here, but to name just a few idiosyncratic ones, I have found that when reading yet another nonfictional book about the Holocaust, you start to approach diminishing returns but then the way that Sebald obliquely discusses it in "Rings of Saturn" and Coetzee in "Elizabeth Costello" opened some new doors for me. I'm sure there are other (and perhaps better) examples of fictional works that can spur this type of critical thinking about social injustices. Part of the problem with including these types of works on these ubiquitous reading lists might be that, in my view, good fiction tends to a little more subtle with respect to these things, and subtlety is probably not necessarily suited for these types of reading lists. The advantage of subtlety is that when the reader can "get it" and internalize the author's message, I think that it provides a much more powerful response than a piece of writing that hits you over the head with the message. The obvious disadvantage with subtlety is that some readers miss it entirely (and I am by no means foolish enough to think that I've been able to recognize and internalize subtlety in all the works of fiction I read), and so if you are crafting a reading list to tackle racism, you will probably want to focus on nonfictional works where the chance of the message being lost or refracted is lower than fiction.