“No readers get to everything they want to read. In fact, the more we read the worse the problem grows.”
Director of the Dow Journalism Program John J. Miller opens his newest book by addressing a number of issues pertinent to avid readers. Released in January, “Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas,” includes a variety of articles he has written on pieces of literature and authors ranging from “Beowulf” to C.S. Lewis.
The title for the book came from a phrase Provost David Whalen uses. “Reading around” underlines the importance of understanding the context surrounding a work. In order to better understand an author’s message, readers must research the events and writings of the day as well as the influences on the author.
Miller highlights one conundrum for bookworms: that readers are in a constant search for more and more books to devour. Then he addresses the problem of quenching this ever-growing thirst to read more books.
“When I finish a book, I may scratch a title off a mental list but often two more titles suggest themselves and the list lengthens,” Miller writes in the introduction. “One of my hopes is that ‘Reading Around’ will address this conundrum of the curious.”
Miller grew up as a “voracious reader,” devouring all kinds of books he could get his hands on. He attended the University of Michigan with plans of becoming an English professor. His college and professional careers took different turns than he had originally planned.
“As things turned out, I went into journalism, and I’m glad it worked out that way,” Miller said in an interview. “I have never looked back, although my interest in literature, art, and ideas never went away. As I’ve been a professional writer, I’ve looked for opportunities to cover these topics.”
And he has found them. The book features pieces he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Claremont Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard. Because “Reading Around” is a collection of his articles than a continuous narrative, Miller said readers will not likely read the articles in order, from beginning to end.
This book has a perfect format for college students. With the business of essays and exam preparation, time is a precious commodity for the studious. Miller has designed the book so readers may pick and choose articles they find interesting.
One goal he hopes to accomplish for the readers is to show the possibility of making a living by writing literary articles. You don’t need to be a professor, Miller said, to write about literature. It’s entirely possible for journalists to get paid writing about books and their authors, he said. He mentioned great writers such as John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and Edgar Allan Poe who worked in journalism and got their start in writing and editing for newspapers and magazines.
“If you love movies, why not be a movie reviewer?” he said. “Or if you love books, why not think about working at the Wall Street Journal book section? These are real jobs, and they require people with certain kinds of interests. You can do this professionally. This is not an unrealistic goal.”
Miller is living proof of this. Although he has done more political journalism than literary, he has built up an impressive collection of book reviews and literary opinion pieces, which appear in “Reading Around.”
But more than an interesting topic, Miller believes that literature is vital for understanding human nature and finding truth we had not previously known. But there’s more to it than that. Good literature is simply appealing to us as readers.
“The best literature is entertaining,” Miller said. “I read a lot of books that are primarily for the purpose of entertainment. I enjoy a good thriller. I enjoy a good crime novel. I think that’s an entirely worthy thing. The best literature says much, much more and gives us insights we may not have and teaches us things we may not know. Entertainment is a perfectly good reason to read.”
Students at Hillsdale are often concerned with the intellectual value of a book and the truths we might glean from it. This is certainly noble, but we’re prone to lose sight of the entertainment value that great books offer.
One article in “Reading Around” covers L. Frank Baum’s classic story of the land of Oz. In “The Wizard of Oz: Just a Story,” published in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Miller “reads around” Baum’s life and his most famous work, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Miller explains scores of readers and teachers tried to read all sorts of political meanings into the children’s book. But this is not where the true heart of the book lies.
“The real brilliance of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ is that it aims chiefly to entertain — a worthy ambition in its own right,” Miller writes. “As Baum himself once said, ‘To write fairy stories for children, to amuse them, to divert restless children, sick children, to keep them out of mischief on rainy days, seems of greater importance than to write grown-up novels.”
As Miller said, entertainment is an important aspect of good literature. Certainly, some novels can be purely fluff, but we shouldn’t absurdly dismiss the value of a book simply because it is entertaining.