Reading America: Kristin Matthews on Reading and the Cold War

Kristin Matthews, associate professor of English, discusses her recent publication, Reading America: Citizenship, Democracy, and Cold War Literature.

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 26, 2017)—What makes a good citizen? According to associate English professor Kristin Matthews’ recent book, Reading America: Citizenship, Democracy, and Cold War Literature, a good citizen must be a good reader.

Matthews’ interest in the link between reading and citizenship was piqued during graduate school while studying on the library sciences floor at the University of Wisconsin. “I was reading a lot of post-WWII stuff and I noticed that there were all of these references to books being read and reading,” Matthews said. “I thought, ‘What’s up with that?’”

Matthews said this interest in references to reading in literature almost became a compulsion in her Cold War research during graduate school. Though she wondered at first if this observation was imagined, she eventually concluded that reading culture really was something that preoccupied people during the Cold War.

The next step for Matthews’ research in the subject was to determine how people manifested their concern with reading during the Cold War. Though literacy has been important in America since its founding, she felt there was still some distinction to be made in this new, growing reading culture influencing post-war America.

“I was able to find the difference in terms of the United States now being in a position of power they’d never been in before,” Matthews explained. “They had economic abundance and leisure they’d never had before so that people could read, people could go to the library, people could buy books of their own.”

She continued, “There also was this sense of uncertainty that was different from times previous. People used reading to say, ‘Okay, if you read these things you’ll be learned, you’ll be able to converse, participate in the process and at the same time you won’t be led astray by all those bad ideas that are out there.”

Though fear of communism plays a large role in most peoples’ understanding of the Cold War era, Matthews also makes an effort not to limit her reading to the battle between communism and capitalism.

I talk about the Cold War in terms of how these concerns about Americanness and spreading democracy and defining ourselves in relation to communism effected peoples’ day to day lives in the United States,” Matthews said.

One of the many approaches Matthews takes in her book to examine reading culture is to analyze the Civil Rights Movement. “You’re trying to get Africa to sign on board with democracy, but here at home you’re treating African Americans like second-class citizens,” Matthews said. Matthews also includes voices from the women’s movement and the student movements who showed similar concerns with this emerging enforcement of democracy.

“Reading was seen as . . . a way that people could become aware but also participate,” Matthews said. “In the Civil Rights Movement you see black educators and black writers and black activists going, ‘Now wait a second. You tell us good reading and good books are this, but that’s mainly white stuff. What we write is characterized as something else, and so how do we redefine it for ourselves and redefine what it means to be a black citizen and a black American?’”

Matthews continued, “So we see that kind of perpetual redefinition and push and pull of what makes a good reader and what makes a good citizen. That, I argue, is the push and pull of democracy.”

Matthews’ approach to book history and print culture differs from others’ in that rather than focusing on what librarians or teachers have said about reading, Matthews brings together both those talking about reading as well as Cold War literature’s own treatment of reading. For Matthews, literary texts weren’t just objects under examination at the time, but actual participants in Cold War conversations.

Among many writers and books analyzed in Matthews’ book, Matthews cites Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, a book she believes models the idea of inclusiveness. “[Woman Warrior] is all about bringing together different types of stories and how a culture is stronger when you have these different types of stories and genres and traditions, more so than when you have one single narrative or one single tradition,” Matthews said.
She continued, “The writers themselves aren’t just things people are battling over, but their books are saying, ‘Hold on. Wouldn’t it be great if we learned how to read each other and listen to one another?’”
Just as reading played a large role in the concept of citizenship during the Cold War, Matthews turns her focus toward the end of the book on what reading and citizenship mean today. Matthews discusses the recent series of interviews that took place between President Obama and Pulitzer author Marilynne Robinson in 2015 on the link between reading and citizenship.

“[President Obama and Robinson] talk about how it’s important that we read books that take us outside of ourselves and outside of our lived experience so that we can better understand those who are different from us and hopefully thereby move to work with them to find some sort of cohesion in our fractiousness.”

Matthews added, “We currently have a president who doesn’t like to read books, and I think that there is an anti-intellectualism where we’re suspicious of people who do read books because somehow that means that they’re elitist and against the people.”

Matthews hopes that in reading books and in reading about those who are different from us we will see that reading doesn’t set one person above another, but rather helps citizens to empathize and find common humanity.

“I think those on the right and the left need to find that common humanity because on all sides of the political spectrum we are dehumanizing those who seem to be different from us,” Matthews concluded. “I think that it’s only through reading that we’re going to both see connections in that common humanity but also see those . . . differences that we need to understand and work with.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers recent publications in the English Department of the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.