In How to Read Now (Norton, July), novelist Castillo makes a case that reading is often predicated on racist expectations.
How do you think publishing facilitates the issues of empathy and representation you discuss in these essays?
One of the things I talk about in the book is the idea that reading teaches us empathy. A lot of that is really about how the discourse around reading instrumentalizes writers of color to serve a particular purpose: “Well, I really want to learn about immigration,” or, “I really want to learn about terrible history.” The dynamic that ends up being produced there is that we go to writers of color to learn something specific and to white writers to feel the universal.
You challenge that reading-for-empathy notion in the book. How do you see empathy as an obstacle to people having more genuine relationships to reading?
I don’t necessarily have a problem with empathy, or with that being part of the value of art. Books have visceral effects on our personhood, on our emotions, on our lives, on our history. The problem is that we don’t apply the logic of empathy to all writers equally. So we’re like, “Well, the reason you should read writers of color is to empathize with these really sad stories.” That’s trash. We don’t talk about how people go through all of their schooling, all of their lives consuming narratives through books, television, and films centered on white lives, as a practice of empathy. White supremacy is a very powerful empathy machine, because it says, “These are the people that you can consider human. These are the people you should see yourself in.”
You mention in the author’s note that the title of the book is meant as both “a bossy Virgo directive” and as a question for yourself. What surprised you most about what you discovered?
The cynical answer is that I discovered I haven’t given up on literature entirely. There’s a baseline level of disillusionment and anger that I often feel in this industry, but it’s still tempered with a real belief in reading and in books. I mean, obviously, because I wrote the book. I’m still here. I’m still fighting for it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to readers?
I would say read more slowly. Books and literature are so commodified, especially in the age of social media. We have this pressure on us to always be reading the latest thing. I think it would behoove all of us to read stuff that isn’t talked about—to find books that are off the beaten path. That’s how I read growing up. Because of the internet, we’re constantly consuming the written word. I think we need to reteach ourselves the practice of reading slowly and weirdly, and don’t read too much. Oh, but do read my book!