Perhaps it is not surprising that a literature professor would write a book in praise of the habit of reading—yet Dr. Heather White’s Books Promiscuously Read (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2021) is a superb surprise, with apologies to Emily Dickinson. With eclectic and extravagant generosity, White dispenses wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of reading and thinking about reading. In White’s own words, Books Promiscuously Read considers how the printed word is “the means by which all readers hear the gods’ voices (contradictory, fleeting, capricious) in a register we ignore only at a great cost.”
Another not-that-surprising development ensued for White earlier this year, with her winning the 2022 Eugene Current-Garcia Award, bestowed by the Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA). Named in honor of venerable Auburn University English professor Eugene Current-Garcia, the prize is given annually to a prominent scholar who has contributed to the study of literature in Alabama.
White joins a distinguished list of UA faculty who have received the Current-Garcia Award, including Philip Beidler, Don Noble, Trudier Harris, Robert W. Halli Jr., Ralph Voss, and Bill Ulmer. Anissa Graham, President of The Association of College English Teachers of Alabama, and English faculty at the University of North Alabama, cited a comment from the late Phil Beidler explaining how ACETA singled out White for this year’s award: “[Beidler’s] comment that White ‘is one of the most exciting and skillful instructors I have worked with in 45 years at the University’ stood out in particular.” Graham also praised White’s “enthusiasm for the written word and for the shared experience of reading” as evidenced by Books Promiscuously Read and White’s previous scholarship.
For White, writing the book was something she had to do. “I needed to write it, after 25 years as a literary professional,” she told me. “One of the reasons I wrote the book was my dismay at what I have often seen in the profession, starting when I was a graduate student, which are many intensely literary people who have not read anything for pleasure for years.”
She has remained committed to unapologetic reading. The idea of a life without time for pleasure-reading strikes White as “not something I could have tolerated.” And White does not see reading as a moral chore or a part of a performative productivity, either: “I think no one should feel guilty about reading for pleasure. I think people should allow themselves to feel the full measure of what they lose when they don’t do that. And I think most people I know instinctively associate guilt with pleasure, so I wanted to take a sledgehammer to that structure.”
White is an authority on the poet Marianne Moore, having edited three collections of Moore’s Perhaps Moore’s most-quoted, best-loved line is the indelible “imaginary gardens with real toads.” I asked White to name some of her favorite imaginary gardens. She began with an extemporaneous discourse on the textual history of that line, before tackling the question. “That sense of being transported to an imaginary place is and always has been the engine of my reading, a sensation that I discovered early and has been a mainstay of my life ever since, and so, which is my favorite imaginary garden changes depending on how old I am when I’m reading at the time.” She went on to praise Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, and Jonathan Franzen’s imagined rendition of the American Midwest as recent pleasures but reserved her highest praise for the rural village of Middlemarch as an exemplar of a book that presents “the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”
— Pete Beatty
After the interview with Pete Beatty, Heather White read his book Cuyahoga and recommends it to all.