You Are What You Read: A Practical Guide to Reading Well   
By Robert DiYanni. Princeton University Press. 2021

Recent changes to post-primary education in Ireland emphasise picking and choosing from a wide range of sources over deep reading.

The English curriculum now gives less importance to deeper readings of novels and Shakespeare. Instead, it requires broader and more numerous and more superficial readings of extracts from plays, novels, and wider sources. Our consensus-driven commentariat has offered few criticisms of such modifications.

Exposure to a breadth of literature undoubtedly has its benefits. But many teenagers will miss out on the pleasure and sense of achievement gained from successfully sticking with a single longer text, such as a novel. Unfortunately, for many of them, the novel they read in school will be among the few they ever read. It may be the only one!

You Are What You Read by Robert DiYanni is a timely reminder that reading is a multifaceted sensory and intellectual practice that brings many blessings. DiYanni is a professor of humanities at the Stern School of Business, New York University. He has written on aspects of critical thinking and teaching practice, including The Pearson Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking (2015) and Critical and Creative Thinking: A Brief Guide for Teachers (2016).

Comprising six chapters across three sections, the first section explores approaches to the activity of reading. The second part digs deeper into non-fiction and fiction, while the final section evaluates reading as an “applied” discipline – the tangible, life-involving aspects of the practice.

Each chapter draws upon generous examples to make its case, including close readings of literary greats such as Austen, Joyce, and Montaigne. In a pardonable moment of self-indulgence, there is a poem penned by DiYanni himself, dispassionately glossed and exegetised in the third person.

Listening to the words

The book opens with the thought-provoking argument that reading for meaning ought not to overwhelm other aspects. Rather it is important to read in order to “listen” to the words: “Though grappling with textual meaning(s) may be our ultimate goal, it does not follow that we should begin with the question of meaning.”

As with listening to a song, our attention is often caught by the chorus or the melody long before (if ever) we heed the words. DiYanni encourages us to let go of our reductive tendency to categorise and define in order to let the mystery and play of the words pique and stir us.

Reading literature only for meaning can confine us. Chaucer, Shakespeare and the pantheon of other literary greats were not writing instruction manuals. Their meaning was often veiled beneath wordcraft. Indeed, DiYanni’s approach makes sense when one considers how our reading perspectives have narrowed today.

One need look no further than our humanities faculties, many of which have fallen under the spell of totalising narratives and ideologies. They have made these their primary raisons detres, while instrumentalising literary texts. The process of compressing the play and polysemy of great writers into the puritanical and simplistic moral frameworks that pass for literary criticism today represents a disservice to their craft.

Truth, goodness, and beauty

The question of meaning is broached in the second chapter. Here DiYanni accepts that, while meaning can vary from person to person, “surely there must also somehow be some core or kernel of truth these diverse groups can agree on, can accept as a central textual truth.” Unfortunately, some aspects of meaning get muddled in this chapter.

DiYanni explains that we read for the sake of truth, goodness, and beauty — but he situates the “discovery” of these transcendent values in the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. According to DiYanni, “Keats’s relation of truth with beauty was anticipated by Shakespeare in a number of sonnets, notably sonnet 14: ‘truth and beauty shall together thrive.’ […] A few centuries later Ralph Waldo Emerson added another term to the equation – ‘goodness’ – equating each virtue with the others in a holy trinity discovered and celebrated not in churches and creeds but in the heart of nature.”

However, the timeless qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty were not “discovered” 300 years ago. DiYanni ignores the voices of Aquinas and other great scholastics of medieval Europe, not to mention Aristotle and Plato, their ultimate forbears.

Aligned perfectly with the birth of modernity, yet harnessing the language of Christianity, the book’s identification of a “holy trinity” of truth, goodness, and beauty discovered and celebrated “not in churches and creeds but in the heart of nature” manifests the extent of our disenchantment today.

In a chapter on the importance of reading for meaning, it would have helped if DiYanni had at least hinted at the classical and Judeo-Christian thought behind this triad. Thankfully, contemporary voices such as Pope Benedict XVI, Tom Holland, and Sohrab Ahmari, each in his own field, have alerted people to our dimmed metaphysical vision and the terminally atrophied cultural corpus to which it leads. 

Reading is not just a utilitarian chore

The second and third parts of the book move from these cognitive and affective aspects of reading practice to considerations regarding fiction and non-fiction, and the interfaces between literature and living. The chapter on non-fiction texts focuses on the essay, a form of writing that has “long had an uncertain status as literature.” DiYanni offers a spirited defence of the essay as an “accommodating genre” for teasing out ideas and telling stories. Derived from the French essayer, “to try,” the essay form, he argues, is as much about process as product. References to the writings of great essayists such as Montaigne and Orwell embellish the chapter.

The final chapters concern reading’s intersections with living. DiYanni challenges contemporary approaches to reading that are rooted in a kind of utilitarianism: “Reading is often seen as a means to an end – to acquire information, amass knowledge, deepen understanding – all worthy goals. […] These goals, however, are frequently atomized, segregated, and made to serve limited purposes, including the development of reading ‘skills’”.

Students, for example, are being taught to “use” reading rather than to “enjoy it”. Echoing the arguments that opened the first chapter, DiYanni urges us to let go, “to surrender ourselves to the text,” to accept the “temporary frustrations of reading,” in order to gain a more gratifying kind of fulfilment by grappling with ideas and arguments.

In spite of its dips in chapter two, You Are What You Read challenges our tendency toward an enfeebled utilitarianism in reading. The emaciated functional literacy of contemporary society attests to the triumph of proceduralism that has penetrated all aspects of our lives, including the kinds of texts we read, and the ways we have learned to read them. The cost of narrowly focused reading is a diminishing ability to access our rich cultural heritage. 

For whom?

Overall DiYanni’s style is engaging and he presents compelling arguments. However, one cannot help but wonder what kind of reader this book is for. Who has the time to read about reading?

You Are What You Read forms part of a “Skills for Scholars” series published by Princeton University Press. The series includes other titles such as A Field Guide to Grad School, Syllabus, and –intriguingly – Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide. University presses are not known for affordable titles. Destitute undergraduates are unlikely to afford such an investment, while postgraduates are likely to have attained a sufficient depth of cultural literacy to render it redundant.

Beyond the ivory tower, readers with some exposure to our literary heritage are likely to reap greater rewards by diving into the classics of Western literature. And those who are only beginning their odyssey may not gain much by reading a lengthy tome about the benefits of reading.

An institution as reputable as Princeton University Press lends its authority to its publications. However, You Are What You Read itself makes no claims to a monopolistic or singular outlook on reading and literature. Approached in this spirit, DiYanni’s weaker moments do not detract from his thought-provoking insights.

Ultimately the book is best read this way – as the engaging, lively, yet never totalising, views of a man who has dedicated his decades-long career to the cause of the humanities in academe.

David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.