Screw Usefulness: Feminism & the Politics of Rereading

The Thursday before last I was having a pretty bad time. Several annoying things happened that day, but I was finally tipped over the edge by reading this review in the New Yorker of a book by Patricia Meyer Spacks entitled On Rereading, which is represented in the review as a book “justifying” the “usefulness” of rereading. Just the idea of this book’s existence enraged me to such an extent that I seethed all the way home and subjected my partner to an incoherent rant about it when I got in.  My immediate response was something along the lines of “What a bunch of nonsense! Wasting perfectly good paper on a ridiculous, made up, middle-class, non problem!”

I’ve now reached the point of being able to explore the source of my anger at this review a little more calmly.  I think I was so infuriated because it summed up a lot of issues around women, class and consumption that have been bugging me more and more as I get older.  Not least among these pet hates is the endless middle-class propensity to make perfectly enjoyable things into a source of stress and misery (especially for women), as well as to create non-problems that make women, especially, feel neurotic. But I also think it made me angry because it put me in touch with some uncomfortable truths.

I’m not going to go into Spacks’s arguments about rereading as described in the review. I have no intention of reading the book and don’t know if the review is a fair representation of what she says in it.  I’m not actually interested in the question of whether rereading is better, I’m interested in the politics of that question and what the very fact of its being asked reveals about classed and gendered discourses around women and consumption. But for the record, my personal stance with regard to rereading amounts to the following: personally, I happen enjoy rereading. I don’t care what you think about my enjoyment of rereading and couldn’t care less whether you reread books or don’t reread books.

So, let’s start with the title of the New Yorker review: “Are Rereadings Better Readings?” Well, why on earth would rereading be ‘better’ than reading a book for the first time? Why would we have to claim that doing the one is “better” than doing the other? Why would we even care? The review is framed by the middle class injunction to attach value judgements to all activities and to promulgate the idea that things are only worth doing if you’re getting something out of them, or if they contribute to the accumulation of status.

Not too surprising for the New Yorker I suppose, but as the review progresses the language becomes far more gendered. It’s stated that Spacks “hopes to justify the usefulness—or at least to solve a bit of the mystery—of an activity that she loves but also, at times, doubts.”  It always infuriates me that women are expected to justify their hobbies as being in some sense “useful”.  Heaven forbid that women not be useful!  And by “useful” I think what they really mean is “virtuous”.  Look at the explosion in the last few years of hobbies aimed particularly at middle-class women with spare time and disposable income, so many of these hobbies are framed/justified in terms of usefulness.  Women can enjoy knitting, if they’re knitting presents for family and friends. Women can enjoy cooking, if they cooking for family and friends or doing it to impress the neighbours, and so on and so forth.

That’s the other thing women are expected to use their hobbies for, to impress people. This seems to be a symptom of the larger injunction that women should worry endlessly about what people think of them, and by “other people”, I think we really mean men and other women who may have power to do us harm.  This terrible worry over what other people think of us as women is something that feminism has made little headway in overcoming – probably because it would require years more consciousness raising and far more mutual support and trust among women than has yet been achieved.  But while this anxiety has been incredibly inhibiting for feminism on many levels, there’s nothing foolish or unreal about it because, for a lot of women, the question of what people think of them as women has direct consequences for their lives, in terms of relationships, jobs, and all sort of things.

I was particularly irritated by the following:

 “perhaps because rereading requires more of a commitment than giving something a second look, it is undertaken, as Spacks puts it, “in the face of guilt-inducing awareness of all the other books that you should have read at least once but haven’t.”  It engages, she fears in her darker moments, a “sinful self-indulgence.”

The language here is highly gendered – guilt, fear, sin, self-indulgence – and all caused by the question of whether or not to read a bloody book more than once!  On one level, I find this heavy-handed language extremely silly, but on the other, it points to the very real anxiety that a lot of women seem to feel about taking a bit of time to themselves, especially if they’re using that time to enjoy an activity that probably isn’t at all useful or virtuous. When encouraging women to take part in activities that can’t be justified in terms of usefulness, advertising often resorts to the language of sin and self-indulgence. You just have to think of all the marketing around chocolate aimed at women.  If a woman can’t claim that some activity is useful, then she’s expected to say that she knows it’s self-indulgent and to claim that she feels guilty about doing it.

It gets on my nerves to say it, but Spacks probably has a point here, though not the one she intended to make, because women are punished for not being “useful”, and have good reason to fear the accusations of selfishness, laziness and self-indulgence that all too often get thrown their way when they want to do things that are entirely for them and no one else.  What really gets to me is that we should be analysing and resisting this mythology rather than buying-into it, as this book appears to do.  With that in mind, last year I picked up a diary in the sales and when I got it home realised that it was a diary for women because, in addition to spaces for the seven days of the week, there was an extra one for “Me Time”.  I was interested to see that “Me Time” existed in this space apparently outside of real time, an entirely mythical space.

Going back to the quote above, why would you feel “guilty” about the unread books on your shelf? Guilt, after all, is a very strong emotion. But of course in middle-class culture there’s a lot of status attached to being “well-read” and (for women) “accomplished”, and there are plenty of real punishments attached to being seen as stupid or poorly educated (read “lower class”). So, is this really the emotion of guilt, or is it actually anxiety, anxiety that is less about reading, and more about class and being seen to be reading the “right way”.  These culturally constructed and gendered neuroses drive me up the wall, no doubt because I’m subject to plenty of them myself.  I mean, how many times a day do I think that I “should” be doing something and feel anxiety because I’m not doing it? Probably more times than I’d like to admit.

I’m also interested in the attitude to consumer culture here, especially the anxiety over consuming in the “right way”.  If you’re rereading a book, you’re failing to consume a new one, which makes you a bad consumer.  But perhaps this can be justified if you can claim there is value in this form of consumption, that it is not in fact useless, that it increases self-knowledge, or whatever.

For me, this book review manages to compress some of the gendered injunctions of late capitalism: be useful, be virtuous, justify yourself, worry about other people think of you, consume, but consume in the right way.

To which I would say, screw usefulness, screw virtue, screw self-justification, screw worry over what other people think of you and screw consumer culture.

Easier said than done I know.

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4 thoughts on “Screw Usefulness: Feminism & the Politics of Rereading

  1. Screw Usefulness: Feminism & the Politics of Rereading « Purple Prose

  2. ::golf clap:: well ranted!

    I get grumpy when I think of the trees that had to die so that this literature professor (!!!) could get her neurosis on. I like that you linked this in with the “Me Time” phenomenon; what that “Me Time” points out is that women exist for other people; our lives aren’t our own. “Me Tiime” is something that must be scheduled after everyone and everything else has been taken care of — a time that, for most women, doesn’t actually exist. Rereading is something that most people do simply for pleasure (unless you’re a literature professor). I HATE how women aren’t allowed to simply enjoy anything for themselves — it has to be useful and/or virtuous.

  3. Patricia Spacks is a very interesting feminist scholar, so I would be surprised if she disagreed with you here. Indeed, without having read this book, the choice use of language in her quotations suggests she might be making a similar point.

    • Well, I’m more interested in the way The New Yorker represented her book and my own reaction to that representation than I am in the actual book. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the New Yorker review does misrepresent Spacks a bit. I’d be relieved to find out that she does talk about the ways in which the practice of reading is gendered and classed. Still, from having had a look at some other reviews, I do get the impression that her book makes an argument for the value of rereading and I find that kind of argument irksome for the reasons mentioned in the post.

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