An Ethics of Reading?

For the past several years, I have been teaching a graduate seminar I call “The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism.” That title has led to misunderstandings, especially since I offer the course within an academic unit focused mainly on moral philosophy. Many have assumed that I propound the notion that reading great books makes you a moral person (I don’t); or, in a more nuanced variant, that I use great books as a vehicle for teaching the ethical life. But I am not a philosopher, and I don’t deal in virtue or even morality in any direct way.

What I mean by “the ethics of reading” is simpler, more basic, perhaps more radical. I believe that careful, detailed, close analytic reading of texts of all sorts, rightly understood and practiced, can itself be an ethical activity.

The Risks of Bad-Faith Interpretation

I think I have long believed that reading was an ethical activity, but my explicit moment of conversion came when the so-called Torture Memos were released starting in 2004. Those memos were written in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel—considered the source of principled legal advice to the Executive Branch—and used ingenious, baroque, and twisted interpretations to claim that the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as incorporated in the United States Code, permits a range of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that all reasonable people now recognize to be torture—and indeed many so recognized at the time.

I won’t reprise analysis of the Torture Memos here—they have taken their place in a history of infamy that will be on our collective conscience forever. My reaction to them was to think that no one trained in the analytic reading of poetry could ever indulge in such bad-faith, distorted interpretation of a text. I am not claiming any special moral virtue for my peers in the interpretive humanities. Rather, I am suggesting that professional training in careful attention to what texts say and how they say it; to the words chosen and their interanimation; to the connotations of images and figures of speech; to the argument advanced, including its force and its possible failings, and the ways in which it is modified by the very form it takes—such training makes one attentive to the kinds of interpretation that are not justified.

In other words, close reading is like any other professional disciplining, whether ballet, sculpture, photography, or lawyering: the feet, hand, eye, or brain know what feels right, what is on target, and what is out of line. Anyone who has explicated a Shakespearean sonnet with a class of students simply comes to know what qualifies as interpretation—wrongheaded and refutable, perhaps, but nonetheless a genuine response to the text—and what is unrelated to the task at hand.

The Rigors of Close Reading

We who spend our lives in the apparently arcane business of interpreting literary texts (or philosophical ones, or paintings, or string quartets) have a certain expertise and knowledge that might actually be valuable to the professions and professional schools—law, business, medicine, and others. That expertise doesn’t have to do with the content of the “great books,” but with the way we read books, great and not so great, and all the other texts that our culture places before us, from legal opinions to advertisements.

What has most often been called “close reading,” and sometimes by what I think is the better name, “slow reading,” teaches us to bring our full attention to what is before us on the page, to explore its ways of making meaning as well as what we may ultimately see as its messages. In practicing close reading, we learn to stay within the world of the text without foreclosing its possible implications. Ideally, we exchange our understandings of what and how the text means with others, in a collective interpretive enterprise that is largely self-correcting, by which I mean that it prevents aberrant understandings from gaining traction. A community of interpretation won’t always agree on a single meaning—literary texts, at least, are rarely univocal—but it can generally reach consensus on what counts as valid or not.

The great Canadian critic Northrop Frye claimed in his Anatomy of Criticism that “everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that the mental process involved is as coherent and progressive as the study of science” (1957, 10–11). I’m not sure I would go that far, but I know what Frye means. Interpretation is a disciplined activity. In the literature classroom of the American university, the rigor necessary to support such discipline was, for a time, largely supplied by the New Criticism, starting in the 1940s and gaining momentum following World War II. Though its origins lie in I. A. Richards’s work in practical criticism at Cambridge in the United Kingdom (see his Practical Criticism, 1929), New Criticism was particularly well adapted to the United States because it presumed and created a kind of democratic classroom, where everyone participated in the explication of the text. It did not claim that all interpretations were equal, but rather that all could be expressed and then, through discussion led by the teacher, the invalid could be discarded to arrive at some sort of consensual truth. There were experienced and expert interpreters, to be sure, but there was no canonical interpretation imposed ex cathedra.

A Trans-Subjective Enterprise

What is strange about the literature classroom is the central place it gives to the text. Art history, musicology, and philosophy are close neighbors in their attention to the art object, the piece of music, or the texture of philosophical argument. These fields in the interpretative humanities—and perhaps literary study more than any of the others—give an unusual place to this thing, this artifact, which is animated only through reading and interpretation. Like a potsherd or a sculpture by Brancusi, the text may appear mute and inaccessible at first. It comes alive only as readers attempt to say what it means, what they like about it, how it gives order and significance to what they have thought and felt.

In the literature classroom, personal responses to the text are disciplined by voices from the past that are not our own. Teachers of literature often are not speaking in their own voices, but are letting the voice of another speak through them, prompting their students to try to understand another idiom—both what it has to say to us, and how it differs from our assumptions. We teachers of literature ventriloquize voices, from the past and from other cultures. T. S. Eliot said that all great literature is impersonal (see “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1920). I would reinterpret that to mean that reading literature in a rigorous way becomes a trans-personal and trans-subjective enterprise, one that teaches you about your own condition only if you are willing to allow yourself to be temporarily alienated in otherness.

The professions, and especially professional education, need this kind of attention to reading and interpretation. Teaching professional ethics to lawyers and doctors is not enough. In learning to become professionals, lawyers and doctors also need to engage in versions of slow reading that let them sift through the implications of the analysis they perform. They should not simply be learning a competence, but also, at the same time, questioning its premises. The kind of reading I have described may lie at the very heart of professional responsibility. It makes us more skeptical and self-aware. It might prevent us from falling into the moral abyss of the Torture Memos.


Eliot, T. S. 1920. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In The Sacred Wood, 42–53. London: Faber & Faber.

Frye, Northrop. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Richards, I. A. 1929. Practical Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Peter Brooks is Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar, Department of Comparative Literature and University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

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