All the time and everywhere readers encounter resistance, some of it fierce. Young readers are bullied in schoolyards and classrooms, and in locker rooms later on. Readers are bullied by governments, School Boards, Legislatures, preachers, pastors, priests and peers. Many young readers are bullied by their parents, who act as well-meaning mentors and censors both. These days so-called “social media” acts as a great Bully, as does advertising in general. The culture emits dissonance from all sides. There are amusements galore, hand-held gadgets as consuming as Totems and as threatening as Golems, and the Everyday has a ready-made arsenal of somatic torments waiting to dissuade the teenager from a reading life. Under relentless hormonal pressure, adolescents are vulnerable to distraction, torpor, and angst. To be a youthful reader is to face a mountain of challenges. In the words of Alberto Manguel, in his monumental “A History of Reading, “Almost everywhere, the community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognized as wise and fruitful, but it is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding, perhaps because the image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumblings of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy and a selfish eye and singular secretive action.” “ The They”, as an arm of the Everyday police force, want what they want and most often “They” don’t want you to “wander off”. This is, in a way, a very good thing.

“The self can only thrive, can only grow, when it encounters and overcomes “resistance from surroundings,” wrote the philosopher John Dewey. Dewey continues, “An environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions would set a term to growth as sure as one always hostile would irritate and destroy. Impulsion forever boosted on its way forward would run its course thoughtless, and dead to emotion.” And so it was in my own adolescence that the major texts were prescribed. After being taught to read, one is taught what to read and how. Teachers back in my day introduced us to books like “The Great Gatsby” with its lurid symbols (The Valley of Ashes etc.), coincidental hit-and-run killings, and that final murder which substitutes for the death of an American Dream. On and on it ran, this litany of required reading, through awful books like “The Old Man and the Sea” (with its single underwhelming symbol), boring books like “A Tale of Two Cities” and, naturally, an occasional story that stuck—Crane’s “Open Boat” and London’s “To Build a Fire” come to mind. On display was a smattering of bad poetry like “The Constitution” by Oliver Wendell Holmes or “Hiawatha” by You-Know-Who. Pimple-faced, anxious and lost, one roams the halls of High School dragging around a tattered volume of “The American Tradition in Literature” while the in-crowd natters about nothing. The AP instructor leads intense discussions of Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country”, culminating in aimless and artless essays. Later, in college, one is introduced to “English Literature” through the medium of “Vanity Fair” (always and forever), the works of Trollope and DeFoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”. One remembers Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” as a slightly shaggy exception to the general rule of overwhelming boredom. Austen and James are thrown over one’s nose and mouth, musty as two of Grandma’s quilts. Rebellion—or at least silence, exile and cunning, suggests itself. Sooner or later, one just says No. No-sayers in my day read “The Catcher in the Rye” and science fiction; these days it could be stories about Vampires.

But not everyone says No. Pat Conroy is one well-known novelist who said Yes during his young reading years, thus becoming a poster-child for cant, hero-worship and literary confabulation. In his book “My Reading Life”, Conroy tells the long and hypertonic story of his mother’s fixation on “Gone With the Wind”, which Conroy explains became his mother’s Totem (not his word) and a book to which he himself became devoted and, to this day, reveres as a Southern anthem. Reading between the lines of Conroy’s explanation, it isn’t hard to see his mother’s reverence for “Gone With the Wind” as a sublimation of her own life tribulations and the allure of Scarlett O’Hara for a generation of southern women, like her own fantasy, as a female Snopes trope. It sums up, he says, the South’s reaction to its loss of the Civil War and paved the way for the resurgence of pride in southern life and regional recovery. Never mind that recovery included lynching galore and a long period of apartheid. Saying Yes to “Gone With the Wind” puts Conroy in the curious position of extolling the virtues of both his mother’s powers of mentoring, while also revealing Conroy’s own curious lack of self-consciousness about the book itself.  It doesn’t help that “Gone With the Wind” is a horrid little book (well, not little exactly). Here’s Scarlett in the first few pages: “But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin and square of jaw.” And here are the Tarleton twins: “Nineteen years old, six feet two inches tall, long of bone and hard of muscle, with sunburned faces and deep auburn hair, their eyes merry and arrogant, their bodies clothed in identical bluecoats and mustard-colored breeches, they were as much alike as two bolls of cotton.”  Only hero-worship (Conroy’s for his mother) could lead one to admire a style like this. In a lengthy introduction to a modern paper reissue of the book, Conroy writes thirteen dense pages of admiration and explicatory background describing his continuing love for the book, pausing only once to pen two short sentences about slavery and all it entailed for plantation society, American history, and the suffering of humanity in general. “In the structure of Margaret Mitchell’s perfect society, slavery was an essential part of the unity and harmony of Southern life before Fort Sumter. No black man or woman can read this book and be sorry that this particular wind has gone.” No kidding.

Later on, Conroy encounters another mentor named Norman Berg. Conroy writes, “He believed that writers of the world were ring bearers who bore the weight of the world on their shoulders, but I would understand his meaning only when the ring of power disturbed my art and rose up to trouble my quest. Norman then revealed to me that he didn’t consider any writer educated until they had absorbed the radiant wisdom of “The Lord of the Rings.” From here, hero-worship, false literary doctrine, and confabulation merge into a singular Yes that reveals the belief that certain books are revelations of radiant wisdom. Conroy sails into reading like a Viking, with wisdom playing the part of Danish port cities. Thomas Wolfe hovers “above a blank page like God dreaming of paradise.” The poet James Dickey transports Conroy into “that ecstatic country where poetry and poetry alone can take you and shake you with the cutting beauty and hammerlock of language.” Dickey, he claims, changed the way Conroy looked at dozens of things. I believe Conroy, I guess, when he claims that he “tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life,” thus easing himself into the “literary life.

This is Conroy on “War and Peace”: “Let me now add my own voice to the hallelujah chorus of novelists who have found themselves enraptured by the immensity and luminosity of “War and Peace” and cast my own vote that it is the finest novel ever written…Three times in my life I have read about the death of Prince Andrei, and three times I have wept uncontrollably. “Uncontrollably” is not a word that Leo Tolstoy would use. But I am not Leo Tolstoy, and I want it known that I wept.”

It’s pretty hard to swallow the notion that Conroy “uncontrollably wept” over the death of Prince Andrei, especially, say, the third time through. It is, perhaps, a re-substantiation of his mother’s reaction to “Gone With the Wind” and is the epitome of cant, defined as insincere or almost meaningless talk used merely from convention or habit—trite or platitudinous words and phrases. Pursuing his chain of reasoning based on the premise that there is a hallelujah moment to the reading life, Conroy concludes, “Even today I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly.”

This is the antithesis of normal adolescent abnormality that most often includes distrust of authority figures, wildly extravagant habits in clothes and personal hygiene, and the warring wanderer self-image coupling pimples, inner self-loathing, and heroic postures. For Conroy though, Writers are Gods; Poets too. Books can change our lives, UTTERLY. Readers cull radiant wisdom by worshiping certain books. If taken seriously and to their logical conclusion, these doctrines wrap the reader in what Dewey called “an environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions,” an environment that would “set a term” to our growth as human beings. In such an environment one could conclude that this novel or that was the greatest in the history of the world. One would clutch a mother’s beloved book to one’s heart and moan. Catchy cant-like phrases would fall from one’s lips about how books can change a life utterly, while one goes on reading the same book over and over, weeping uncontrollably at Prince Andrei’s death.  To the extent that confabulation is prepared learning—storytelling that substitutes for the brain’s inability to process the multitude of sensory images available, Conroy’s brain tells him archly old-fashioned Bible stories about the Southern Past, about writer’s as Gods, and readers as a chorus of hallelujah singers.

As an antidote to Conroy, one might read “The Meaning of Human Existence” by the great socio-biologist and evolutionary theorist (and the world’s greatest expert on ant society), Edward O. Wilson. Human beings are, Wilson argues, preeminent among the eusocial organisms, those animals that demonstrate advanced social structures based on altruism and nest building. Eusocial in nature, human beings are biased by prepared learning for certain behaviors (fear of snakes, for example), among which is gossip.

“For example,” Wilson writes, “human beings are born gossips. We love the life stories of other people, and cannot be sated with too much such detail. Gossip is the means by which we learn and shape our social network. We devour novels and drama.”

For the evolutionary biologist, novels are gossip, a way to devour the details of other people’s inner and outer lives. Novels thus fall along a continuum from nursery rhymes to backyard chat to snooping to soap operas to lurid dramatic melodramas to social media (the ultimate social grooming behavior) and forward to high art. Novels themselves are situated somewhere in the middle, a form of gentile or refined gossip for the bourgeois in towns.

Breaking away from all this hero-worship, cant and confabulation is fundamental to the early reading life. Being everywhere forced to kneel or worship at the feet of mentors seldom sits well with the emerging adolescent reader. The reading life is sometimes a way young people can navigate in and around environmental resistance and yet wander off eventually, come what may.   Wandering off forces an encounter with the real mysteries. In the words of Proust, “The stellar universe is not so difficult of comprehension as the real actions of other people.” Proust was not referring to the Tarleton twins.