I have a bad habit of chasing ideas down rabbit holes when I do my research. I see something interesting, and off I go. That’s how I ended up reading Reading in Bed: An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 21 October 1999 by Hermione Lee, Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature.
Lee, a scholar, literary critic, and biographer of writers like Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, is the first woman holder of the Goldsmiths’ chair, held until 2008, when she became president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She used the occasion of her lecture to talk about “the solitary space of reading which for many woman writers has embodied one of the most formative pleasures of their lives.”
She begins with Woolf, noting how “erotic, sensual, and pleasurable” are her descriptions of reading:
“What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in & found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and breaching it.” [Woolf, 24 Aug. 1933: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]
“Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. It’s a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here [i.e. in the country] with a violence that lays me low.” [Woolf, Letter to Ethyl Smith, 29 July 1934: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]
“Love is so physical and so’s reading.” [Letter to Vita Sackville-West, 29 Dec. 1928, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]
From Woolf’s essay ‘Hours in a Library’ (as quoted by Lee):
“With a little thought we can most of us recall the stages at least of our own initiation. The books we read in childhood, having purloined them from some shelf supposed to be inaccessible, have something of the unreality and awfulness of a stolen sight of the dawn coming over quiet fields when the household is asleep. Peeping between the curtains, we see strange shapes of mist trees which we hardly recognize, though we may remember them all our lives; for children have a strange premonition of what is to come.”
Lee notes how illicit this language is: purloined, inaccessible, awfulness, stolen sight … words shot through with shame and secrecy. Lee asks where this sense of shameful reading comes from. She writes:
“The history of reading contains within it a conflict which recurs over and over again, in different formulations, between what one might call vertical and horizontal reading: the first regulated, supervised, orderly, canonical, and productive, the second unlicensed, private, leisurely, disreputable, promiscuous, and anarchic. The contrast between public and private, licensed and unlicensed, social and solitary reading has never been straightforward … but there are edicts and prohibitions galore to be found, over hundreds of years, warning against the danger of reading being done the wrong way, of the wrong books, by the wrong people, even in the wrong positions.”
Lee recognizes that the rules of reading, as they are promulgated in different ways in different cultures at different times, also apply to men, but focuses on the way edicts against dangerous reading have been directed at women. She notes “the dubiousness, even the threat of the solitary woman reader” and describes, in fascinating little vignettes, how this threat was addressed in Renaissance Italy, in Tudor England, even into the twentieth century. Margaret Atwood, for example,
“used to drag the really dubious books off into corners, like dogs with bones, where no one would see me reading them. I resorted to flashlights under the covers.” [From Antonia Fraser, ed., The Pleasure of Reading, 1992, as quoted by Lee]
In language familiar to women readers of genre fiction today, Lee describes “private, obsessive, addictive girlhood reading experiences” recounted by writers in memoirs or in autobiographical moments in their fiction. She notes how crucial this kind of reading is for many girls, done in opposition to so many things, even the rhythms of life of the family. And that the place of reading is as important as what is being read: not in the official reading spaces of the (of course, not impoverished) household — the office, the library — but in corners, under covers, curled up on a couch.
We can’t go back to that youthful space, emotionally or physically, but the hold that the books we read in our youth never wanes. For women writers, this hold is most apparent in their works. Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” is, according to Lee “one of the best accounts I know of horizontal reading … disreputable reading, junk reading, serendipitous reading, dream reading, reading while looking out of the window, reading while running a high fever…”
I remember very well the secret reading I did as a child. It was a little different for me, being raised by a newly divorced mom with a newly feminist consciousness, who nevertheless didn’t want me all up in her adult book shelf at age eight or ten. I recall a horror novel called Lupe (1978), Scruples (1978) by Judith Krantz (which I pronounced “Scrupples” for years), Forever by Judy Blume (1975), Our Bodies Ourselves (1976), The Best of Life (1973, lots of gruesome pictures of war and genocide), and Go Ask Alice (1971).
It’s funny that the idea of secret reading is now also associated with adult women — especially romance and erotica readers using digital devices. When we are sitting on a train, on a bench, at a work desk, at a table in a restaurant, on a plane, with our Kindles or Nooks or smartphones, we aren’t actually horizontal, but so many of the same associations are there for some readers, for some onlookers, and for some breathless journalists. Interestingly, digital reading seems to have created private spaces in public for men, too, who read romance and other feminine coded genre fiction in “secret” while in a crowd.
I really enjoyed Lee’s address, which I had to request from a different university library than my own. I wish it were available in digital format. It’s the first copyrighted work I’ve ever had the urge to scan and upload for public consumption (I didn’t). If you come across it, you could do worse than take a few minutes, curl up in the nearest corner, and read it for pleasure.