Review: ‘How to Read Now,’ by Elaine Castillo

HOW TO READ NOW: Essays, by Elaine Castillo

“White supremacy makes for terrible readers,” Elaine Castillo writes in her essay collection, “How to Read Now.” The sentence, like the book’s title, is both a dig and a dare, which blooms into an urgent plea: “We need to change how we read.” For Castillo, born in California to Filipino immigrants, this “we” is “generally American”; her book is directed toward the marginalized communities that make up a large part of this country.

Castillo’s debut novel, “America Is Not the Heart,” depicted the everyday lives of Filipina migrant laborers (nurses, maids, sex workers) who are too rarely foregrounded in American literature. The book acknowledged its literary debt — to Carlos Bulosan’s foundational 1943 novel “America Is in the Heart,” about Filipino farmers in Depression-era California — while also expanding its relevance for contemporary readers.

“How to Read Now” is an even more explicit meditation on questions of inheritance, working through Castillo’s responsibilities not as a writer, but as a reader. Its eight chapters engage the readers who have most informed her own practice, beginning with her father: an otherwise unassuming “old Pinoy security guard at a computer chip company” who “was making me read Plato’s ‘Symposium’ when I was in middle school, a fact that none of my white teachers believed.”

This is a book on readership that is itself a series of readings. Castillo leads by example, offering exegeses on texts from Henry James to Wong Kar-wai, Jane Austen to “X-Men.” Reading, for Castillo, is hardly limited to books, encompassing popular television, a colonial treaty and a statue.

Despite its searching quality, “How to Read Now” approaches reading as a political act that implicates everyone. To be a good reader, Castillo suggests, means being open to the different readings of other people, perhaps especially those you disagree with. “None of this work is meant to be done alone,” she writes. “Critical reading is not meant to be work performed solely by readers and writers of color.” Here, Castillo reminds us that her “we” contains multitudes — a Whitmanian collective that is necessarily porous and shifting.

Castillo’s nonfiction carries the same animated verve as her novel. At times the prose veers toward the polemical, but only to unsettle our pieties: that reading teaches us empathy, that white artists, unlike artists of color, can be separated from their art and from identity politics. Instead, Castillo writes for the author’s “unexpected reader”: “someone who was not remotely imagined — maybe not even imaginable — by the creator of that artwork.”

In “Main Character Syndrome” Castillo pulls off a masterly takedown of the cult of Joan Didion, who has become “shorthand for a certain strain of bourgeois intellectual white feminism so beloved by luxury capitalism for the veneer of authenticity and depth it provides.” In “Autobiography in Asian Film,” she explains why the “representation matters” discourse around centering more Asian American characters in mainstream media will always fail to account for the true heterogeneity of Asian American experience.

Despite its declarative title, “How to Read Now” is not so much an instruction manual as an earnest invitation — “a question, open-ended,” she writes. “I, too, want to know how to read now.” What emerges is an engaging and provocative conversation with a playful interlocutor who wanted me, her reader, to talk back.

There is a breathless earnestness to Castillo’s writing, which unfurls in long sentences laced with extended parentheticals and subordinate clauses. The chatty prose and its rhetorical flourishes are distinctly millennial: “but go off”; “u ok boomer?”; “T.L.D.R.” When I started reading the book, I (another Asian American living in the Bay Area) frequently found myself in ambivalent or even direct disagreement with Castillo. It gradually became clear that that was the point: for me to become her “unexpected reader,” and thus feel the full weight of her argument. “How to Read Now” is a book that doesn’t seek to shut down the current literary discourse so much as shake it up. And on this I agree with Castillo: It so desperately needs to change.

Jane Hu is a critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Bookforum and elsewhere.

HOW TO READ NOW: Essays, by Elaine Castillo | 340 pp. | Viking | $26

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