The Solitary Vice

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

It might seem odd of Mikita Brottman to write a book against reading called The Solitary Vice; in truth, she is not against all reading or all books. In fact, she claims to have been a great reader all of her lifetoo much as an adolescent, when she tried to escape the horrors of family life by immersing herself in gothic horror stories such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

She confesses to have been addicted to reading, and in parts her book reads like an account of a recovering addict warning against the horrors of her particular drug. However, though she begins by seeming to warn against all reading, or at least to mock the campaigns in favor of reading (which say that as long as you read, it makes no difference what you read), it soon becomes apparent that she is actually intent on changing what people read rather than have them stop reading altogether.

Surprisingly, given her youthful addiction to horror stories, those are not the books she warns against. Indeed, she recommends horror stories, though now she is an advocate of true crime stories rather than the fictional tales she devoured as a youth.

What she inveighs against are not gothic novels but the classics, from Sophocles through Beowulf (c. sixth century) to Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605, 1615), all the books she was made to read at university. Forget the classics, she says; if you really must find out about them, watch a film version or read CliffsNotes, a startling point of view from a professor of literature, but her point seems to be to shock or startle and to get readers thinking about what they read and why.

In the end, Brottman says that the point of reading is to learn about other people and oneself, and the best books for that, in her view, are not the classic novels of the past, but nonfiction of various sorts. In addition to true crime stories, which perhaps can instruct about the dark side of life, though mostly they seem as escapist as the gothic fiction of Brottman’s youth, Brottman recommends literary memoirs (which in a way is what her book is) and Hollywood gossip, along with psychological case studies, such as the ones Sigmund Freud produced early in his career.

Her interest is in details, because through details one can understand others’ lives and measure one’s own against them. She is especially interested in the lives of writers, though she delights in puncturing the notion that writers are superior sorts of beings; in fact, she says, they are mostly unpleasant in real life, though she raises the question of what real life is for a writer: Which is the real personality of the writer, she asks, the one revealed in his or her books or the one in the person one meets on the street?

Brottman is also interested in reading about Hollywood celebrities, and she launches into an analysis of celebrity that seems only tenuously connected to reading. America has become a land of celebrities, she says; celebrity is the true American religion, and celebrities are the true elite, but they are a powerless elite whose worshipers love to read about their setbacks and sufferings.

Brottman says that people like to read about the failings of celebrities because it makes them feel stable and healthy in comparison, and it is interesting that the books she recommends tend to focus on the dark side of life, from true crime to Hollywood gossip to the case studies of sufferers from psychological disorders. She is quick with generalizations and not too concerned about evidence, which may prompt some of her readers to wonder about her accuracy.

Brottman, however, is...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 44 (November 3, 2008): 24-34.

San Francisco Bay Guardian 42, no. 29 (April 21, 2008).

Shelf Awareness 1, no. 616 (February 20, 2008).