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As a humanities concentrator, I’m often asked if “students still read.” I work as an assistant for the head of the Harvard libraries, so I’ve served on a few panels for librarians and alumni anxious to know what the reading climate at Harvard is like. Do students buy books printed on paper anymore? Do they go to the library at all? It’s true that we don’t read exactly the way our parents do: I do a lot of research through online journals, I read blogs, I have a Twitter account. But it’s been my experience that reading at Harvard is much too nuanced a phenomenon to be summarized by a mere change of format. It has less to do with e-readers and e-ink than with the fact that people build their identities around the culture they consume.

I’ve been thinking over these questions this summer while researching my senior thesis. I plan to look at Aulus Gellius, a gentleman-scholar in Rome (a.d. c. 123–c. 165) who kept careful notes of his reading habits in a three-volume miscellany that survives almost entirely intact. Reading, for Gellius, was a social activity, so much so that the desire to be seen as well-read set the tone for almost all the interactions he had with his peers. Not only did he go scroll-shopping with friends along the Tiber and compare notes about new works, he and his companions stopped at nothing to appear educated. His notes make dinner parties seem like literary death matches: When a group walks home from a gathering, they compete to see who can quote the most from this work and that; at a luxurious villa, all the guests begin to sweat and blush when a young man stumbles during a public declamation. A few misspoken phrases and suddenly a haze of collective embarrassment clouds the room—as if the teenager had committed an unforgivable faux pas by thus shaming himself in public.

Twice a week, I take the subway to the local university library to try to figure out what it would have been like to live in a world where social standing depended on such an exacting display of knowledge. The library is fresh off a bedbug scare and fairly empty. Working there can be a little bit lonely. There’s no one to take breaks with—and though I’m sure the neighboring scholar would be fascinated to know that Aulus Gellius inspired a whole generation of ferocious note-takers in the Renaissance, he might be put off were I to lean over and tell him.

 

The friendly buzz of libraries is an aspect of student life at Harvard that I cherish. Certain chats happen in libraries that I’ve rarely had anywhere else at school: friends encountered there discuss literary matters more readily. Maybe it’s the hushed atmosphere—a sense of excitement often permeates the brief encounters between acquaintances in reading rooms. 

Reading at Harvard is social, too, as it was for Gellius. Many of the meaningful conversations I’ve had in college have been about books that I’ve read, or should have read, or should never read. The closest friendships I’ve developed during my three years in Cambridge overlap in large part with those people with whom I’ve shared important intellectual experiences—be it discoveries of a certain author or shared coursework. From classrooms come long discussions comparing ancient treatises with modern songs; from books, lists of recommendations exchanged throughout the summer; from the libraries, lunchtime conversations about the oddest objects owned by Harvard (so far: a book bound in human skin, and Walt Whitman’s death mask, which still has some hair stuck to it). 

 

One of the most interesting things I’ve found in my research on Gellius is that a certain posturing surrounds all literary interactions. Not only are he and his contemporaries eager to find the right words and quotations, they also look for the right shoes, the right cloak. Pupils are frequently chastised about their appearance. The most cogent advice for literary success in that period came from the contemporary satirist Lucian: “Your sandals should be those of an Attic woman—you know, with lots of sections on them—or else boots from Sicyon, conspicuous with white felt.” Lucian may have meant to poke fun, but his advice wasn’t far off. According to the historian Philostratus, one successful orator of the time, Alexander, was “always arranging his hair, cleaning his teeth, and polishing his nails, and always smell[ed] of myrrh.” Another, Favorinus, took the idea of self-presentation even further. Said to have been born a eunuch, he was so skilled at self-presentation that his high voice, unusual effeminacy, and self-confidence earned him a place among the most well-respected orators of his time. There’s even the suggestion that he may have used his skills for seduction—he was charged with an adulterous affair with a well-known noblewoman. Self-presentation was as important as, or even more important than, the substance of one’s work.

How different is that from Harvard? The small group of pretentious but well-meaning literati (I count myself among them) who congregate at the offices of the Advocate, our literary magazine, proudly sport horn-rimmed glasses and sweaters reminiscent of early Woody Allen movies. A few years ago, everyone got their cardigans monogrammed with the magazine’s seal. It’s not unusual to hear Foucault and Bolaño referenced along with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé at parties.

This posturing is not confined to would-be editors. It permeates discussions throughout the campus. How often have I seen a fellow student improve a comment in seminar with perfect pauses and well-placed hand gestures? Together, they can make even a vague statement like “I agree with Tim’s point” sound a little smarter. A determined facial expression makes one seem focused; uneasy hesitation suggests one is trying to downgrade the magnitude of one’s own thoughts. 

Some may pass this off as laziness. Sometimes it is. It’s happened that everyone in a class section admits beforehand to reading the same version of The Symposium—the Wikipedia one—but each person has picked out a choice quotation that implies they’ve studied the text carefully. Presentation often covers up, or at the very least adds some polish to, hasty preparation. 

Yet I don’t think this posturing is only a shortcut. It’s part of how we’ve been taught to deal with texts. At an elite university like Harvard, we are meant to learn not just the skills that will help us succeed in careers but those that will help us shine in the accompanying cocktail parties. Learning to act well-read is something that the College, with its emphasis on overwork and competition among peers, teaches students to do. There’s never enough time to read everything required, but there are endless examples of how to promote one’s education. From the first moment that we learn to say “I go to school in Boston” as code for “I’m smart and I know it,” we learn how to use reading as a way to make ourselves more attractive.

So when people ask me what reading at Harvard is like, I can’t help but think: Be it scroll, book, Kindle…or whatever comes next, there will forever be social display around reading among the well-educated. Students will always make friendships around the works they read or see. And the flip side is that reading carries with it its own codes that are learned along with the text. Learning to read means learning not only to follow the words on the page, but how to use them in outside contexts, and how to let others read you. 

 

A few nights before I left Cambridge for the summer, I went to the Advocate to hang out with some friends. The evening started out as it usually does—the quiet movement of furniture being dragged across the floor, talk of who was done with exams and what was left to study. After a few hours had passed, a small group gathered, and two of the boys decided to recite some poetry. 

Back and forth they went: Coleridge, Whitman, Carson. Ten, 15 poems swung by. Each boy paused to rearrange his glasses. The rest of us sat quietly, taking a sip from a cold drink, or shifting cautiously in the Advocate chairs. When the two had exhausted their memories with an incomplete attempt at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” someone turned on the stereo and the evening slipped back into its regular course. 

Sincere or pretentious? Posturing or a display of knowledge lovingly culled? I can’t answer everyone’s questions, but I can say this. When I went to sleep that night, I felt satisfied.