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the Complete Review
the complete review - reading

The Solitary Vice

Mikita Brottman

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To purchase The Solitary Vice

Title: The Solitary Vice
Author: Mikita Brottman
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2008
Length: 210 pages
Availability: The Solitary Vice - US
The Solitary Vice - UK
The Solitary Vice - Canada
  • Against Reading

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Our Assessment:

C : frustrating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 4/5/2008 David L. Ulin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unfortunately, as The Solitary Vice progresses, Brottman loses sight of this point, delivering instead a series of loosely structured essays on her reading life. (...) All this is interesting in its own way, but it has little to do with the larger conceit of the book. In addition, Brottman makes too many broad generalizations that the facts don't appear to support." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Solitary Vice seems, at first glance, a pretty clever title for a book 'Against Reading', as one can say -- as Mikita Brottman does at the beginning of her book -- there are quite a few similarities between masturbating and reading. It's a clever idea, too, seeing reading as a 'solitary vice' -- though it's interesting (and telling) that Brottman pays practically no attention to reading as a communal activity, whether in reading-aloud form (whether bedtime stories for the kids or author-readings of one form or another), or in book discussion groups. But it turns out Brottman has a relatively limited view of both the solitary and the vice parts of reading, making for a critique not so much of reading but of a very specific part of privileging literature (as well as the mindless ra-ra cheering for reading per se, as if it were a universal cure-all).
       Brottman differentiates between plain, simple reading -- anything, down to the most basic texts -- and reading literature ('serious' books), and she isn't at all convinced there's less (basic) reading going on nowadays. (Throughout she is focussed on the American experience, as well as the British when she describes her childhood and school-reading.) She just thinks much reading has shifted to digital reading (i.e. on the computer) -- without wondering very hard whether that's really the same, or even a similar, thing.
       Throughout, Brottman emphasises the utility of reading -- what do we get out of it ? how does it improve our lives, even on a very practical level ? -- and obviously being able to 'read' on the computer means a certain computer-literacy that can obviously help you get ahead in the current world and economy. But she doesn't examine the consequences of declining reading comprehension scores or of having a more limited vocabulary (as those who do not read 'serious' literature extensively tend to -- not that reading serious literature is the only way to improve one's vocabulary, but it seems to have proven the most effective over the years). Well, actually, she does -- but she only to seem to argue for them, suggesting it will set you apart from the real world if your vocabulary is too rich and if books have taught you to express yourself better:

     In this respect, literature causes more damage than subjects like science, math, or business, because it's mainly by reading fiction that we acquire a facility with language that can be quite at odds with the way people around us express themselves.
       Oh, dear !
       But Brottman spins this nightmare out further and further:
     Instead of saying what comes into your head, as you used to do when you were a child, you start to wonder how to express yourself, rehearsing your words internally before you speak. Perhaps, more often than not, you decide against speaking out loud, in case people make fun of you, or just don't understand what you mean.
       Say what ?
       But she's serious, and obviously there's a reason for her blinkered spin, and obviously the reason is that when she's talking about 'you' she's talking about herself. Indeed, The Solitary Vice seems to be an almost visceral reaction to book-lover Brottman's feeling of being let down by literature, of having missed the boat because she was such a bookish nerd. No wonder, when she describes herself -- with what one imagines is only slight exaggeration:
But while reading may have expanded my imagination and broadened my inner life, it also narrowed my outer one, turning me from an ordinary, introspective teenager into a barely functional recluse. Although I hardly noticed it, buried in the attic with my books, at some point during my teenage years my dad moved out, my brothers dropped out of school and left home, and my mother rented out their empty rooms.
       (She also doesn't wonder about the obvious: in a household that was apparently this screwed up, wasn't she better off oblivious in the attic ? Who needs that kind of reality ?)
       Brottman makes some valid points about reading not necessarily being "all it's cracked up to be", but it's a very uneven attack and exposé. Of course, it's easy to attack the public campaigns to get people reading books, and the Oxford-reading list for those studying English (as she did). But she also is willing to almost summarily dismiss all the 'classics', not even considering what possible value most of them might have, -- and goes so far as to suggest:
     If you can manage to get hooked by a classic novel, by all means go ahead and read it, but if not, remember, you can always watch the movie.
       She's serious (she even lists some of her film-favourites), but she doesn't even consider why the reading-experience might offer something the cinematic version can't. Instead, she notes that her students are, for example, far more familiar with movies -- and this 'common denominator' aspect (lowest or not) appeals to her, as much more useful knowledge than book-knowledge (novel-knowledge, in particular). She clearly thinks it's more closely connected to that outer world that passed her by as a child -- this is knowledge that lets you participate with the 'in-crowd', because they can understand what you're talking about and hence will embrace you as one of their own ! She has a point that it's easier to relate to and understand others if there's that common ground, but to suggest the (book-)classics are almost invariably a barrier rather than yet another potential (though perhaps out of the way) bridge seems particularly closed-minded.
       Despite its subtitle, The Solitary Vice isn't all against reading; indeed, Brottman suggests a lot of it can be worthwhile. But she goes out of her way to emphasise and argue that what's really good for us isn't the rarefied literary stuff, but much more close-to-earth writing. Most ancient classics, after all:
are, in fact, a pretty random selection of oddities that you're required to study purely because, through various incidents of circumstance, they happen to have survived.
       Instead, she suggests, readers shouldn't feel guilty about turning to, say, genre fiction. Romance fiction, for example, "at its best, can affirm our own state of mind, helping us realize we're not alone." This from the same person who complained that she was cut off from the real world by burrowing her head in books as a child ... surely, if you have to turn to a book to get affirmation that you're not alone you're: a) pretty alone, and b) not addressing the root issue, i.e. your solitary situation, head-on.
       But what Brottman is really a fan of, what she really says is good reading (though admittedly she emphasises that it's what she gets value from) is non-fiction. Hollywood Babylon was a revelation for her, because it was real. And among the other kinds of books she thinks are particularly helpful are ... true crime accounts, and case studies (psychological, mainly).
       In large part this is due to where she's coming from, arguing that, for example:
     Indeed, it's by discovering order and design in other people's affairs that we learn the most difficult of lessons: how to make sense of ourselves. In some ways, in fact, we actually need to know the personal and intimate details of other people's lives in order to help understand and control our own.
       Certainly, a society functions better when its members understand each other (and each other's behaviour) better -- but it's odd that Brottman wants us to learn that through books (non-fiction books -- including true-crime tales -- at that). It's as though the bookish girl has abandoned fiction (classical fiction, especially), because it didn't prepare her for adulthood, but since she can't give up her devotion to books entirely she expects non-fiction books to guide her the rest of the way. (Presumably two or three decades from now there will be a follow-up book in which Brottman describes how well that worked out .....)
       The truly telling sentiment is when she claims:
No one wants to read a book that isn't, at some level, all about themselves.
       If you're looking for yourself in every book you pick up, then Brottman is probably right: reading is a dangerous, solitary vice. But surely that's not what most readers generally seek from literature. (Speaking only for ourselves: the last people we want to encounter in a book are ourselves -- and even stretched, to mean that most readers look for something to relate to (to their lives, etc.) in every book, we'd have to beg to differ. But then we've also never found much appeal in the writing-advice that writers should write what they know, either.)
       So The Solitary Vice isn't so much 'against reading' as it is against the privileging of certain kinds of books. In fact, Brottman winds up making a strong case for reading -- any kind of reading that works for you, she suggests. Which is sensible enough but avoids a lot of the issues (including the solitary nature of the act of reading (and the solitary nature of so many of the other alternative acts people engage in in this day and age)). And Brottman's attempts to differentiate between reading that's good and maybe not so good for you founder on the somewhat forced denigration of the classics, and the value she insists -- at all costs -- can be found in other types of books. Again and again her argument goes back to finding, on the most basic level, utility in reading -- case studies are good for you because they tell you what people are like, while, for example, Wuthering Heights gives impressionable young girls a completely wrong idea about relationships. It's not a great argument, at least as presented here.
       Brottman is also not much for hard numbers or facts (which are, admittedly, hard to come by), and constantly tosses out opinions instead, which doesn't exactly help her arguments:
If, as a lot of people claim, books are less common than they used to be (though I haven't noticed it, have you ?), it's probably because sites like Amazon and eBay have made them so cheap to come by that they're virtually disposable, hardly worth the space they take up in your apartment (especially if you live in Manhattan or San Francisco).
       (Who has ever claimed "books are less common" (and what does that even mean) ? Surely book-production numbers -- a statistic that's actually easy to find -- reveal that there hasn't been any precipitous decline in the number of books in circulation.)
       In a rare case where numbers are given a typo leaves the reader even more confused:
John Sutherland, in his book How to Read a Novel (2006), has calculated that more than 2,000 are published every week, or 10,000 a year.
       (Either the 2,000 is wrong or the 10,000 (52 x 2,000=104,000) -- but which ?)
       Brottman's claim that half the 150,000 new titles and editions published in 2002 were novels is also a figure that is completely unsubstantiated -- and highly dubious. Leaving aside print-on-demand titles for a moment (which has admittedly changed the totals drastically in recent years -- but didn't yet in 2002), most of the 150,000 titles -- as is the case every year -- were books that are in no normal sense of the word, 'readable', and included vast numbers of cookbooks, dictionaries, guidebooks, and monographs. Only a small proportion was fiction -- probably in the low 10,000s --, and while novels dominate that category, leaving out children's fiction, new editions of old works of fiction, and story collections leaves a large but nowhere near as overwhelming total.
       The Solitary Vice turns out to be a very personal book, full of Brottman's own experiences. Yes, she surveyed fifty-six readers (though 'unscientific' is about as kind as one can be in describing that particular effort) and takes those responses into account, but for the most part the book is informed by her experiences. It's hard not to imagine that the book would have been considerably more successful as a reader-memoir of sorts, without this pretense of semi-neutral study.
       Her argument against the privileging of (classical/serious) fiction is one-sided, at best, and her support of 'lesser' fiction even less convincing. To have truly written 'against reading' -- and yes, there is an argument to be made for that (and not just, as she here makes, for those who just aren't literary-minded in any way) -- could also have been interesting, but oddly enough she shies away from that as well.
       Enormously frustrating, The Solitary Vice has some ideas and anecdotes that are of interest, but it is not very well argued, and depends much too much on a far too limited perspective (Brottman's very own).

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The Solitary Vice: Reviews: Mikita Brottman: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mikita Brottman was born in the UK and teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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