For a long time I wondered why I was so revolted by the sensitivity readers. I am talking about those employees of publishing houses responsible for sifting literary texts through the sieve of inclusiveness for the 2023 vintage to avoid terms that would offend the sensibilities of certain readers, or would refer to stereotypes that bias representations. After all, it is not wrong to say that literature, under the pretext of free imagination, does not necessarily have to be a school of racist or misogynistic cliché. Similarly, if we must respect the writings as they come from the pen of their author, we cannot deny that the mentality of each era – those before like ours – permeates literary writings and carries its lot useless compromises with the less sympathetic aspects of his time, and that is not always very happy.
Despite these altogether acceptable reasons, something in this process has always seemed to me deeply worrying, which was not reduced to the loud cries of the opponents of the sensitivity reading, which I always thought were a bit off the mark. My deep disagreement was due to confusedly different reasons, but whose true root I could not grasp. It is by reading this week the marvelous work A summer with Umberto Eco of Jean-Philippe de Tonnac (Grasset) that the eureka came to me.
This book recounts with love and modesty the sessions once organized by the author between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, from which was born the dazzling Don’t expect to get rid of the pounds (Grasset, 2009). We go behind the scenes of this book. In the trips that presided over it, the preparatory meetings, the formation of the dialogue, its witnesses, its detours, from Paris to Milan or Bologna. It is, of course, about books. That is to say known or forgotten writers, precious and rare books, personal libraries (those of the two accomplices, very different, make you dream) or burnt, lost, fantasized libraries – Alexandria, Baghdad, the Yucatan and its Mayan codices – from Dream of Poliphile and Daughters of Fire.
Our libraries are more than ever refuges
Between 2009 and 2023, the world of books has changed. He is now under surveillance. The dialogue of 2009 was fascinating, the background that this making of of 2023 brings us is salutary. Because we find there, among other joys, this formula from Carrière about libraries: “Being surrounded by all the ideas in the world, by all the feelings, by all the knowledge and all the possible wanderings gives you a feeling of security and comfort. You will never be cold in a library. You are protected from the icy dangers of ignorance.”
And There you go ! This is where the demon of the sensitivity reading. In the manifest desire to ignore that books respond to books. That there is no isolated book, but books written after other books, to respond to them, to dialogue, to extend. That every reader is a reader not of one book, but of several, and ties the thread of this conversation between the books. That since writing has existed, it has found its place in this marvel of the human mind (and the nightmare of apartments that are too small) that is the library.
THE sensitivity reading is the negation of this founding conception. Because it is an attempt to reduce the abundance of books (yesterday and today) to a single intellectual matrix, it denies the very idea of reading as a way of endlessly weaving the dialogue between books, between books and us, between us and other readers. By working to ruin this multiplicity of “feelings” and “knowledge” which makes reading a vital exercise, by trying to rewrite everything through the prism of a single look, we are in fact trying to make all books a single book. . We are ruining the very notion of the library, whose proliferation, apparent anarchy (“How to put away a library?” ask the two accomplices), the labyrinthine multiplication are the very heart of our spirit and our humanity. THE sensitivity reading, with the best intentions in the world, is the dull yearning not for inclusiveness but for conformity, that is, for impoverishment. Our libraries are more than ever refuges against this silent auto-da-fé from which our children will collect the ashes.
* Sylvain Fort is an essayist