Lit with Lindsay: Your girl was in Berkeley with her communist reader


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I stumbled upon the class on accident while looking for a different room in Wheeler Hall — a classic freshman mistake.

Fast forward a week later, and I found myself sitting in a circle with the professor and about five other students, clutching “The Communist Manifesto” and wondering how the hell I had ended up there, in a senior research seminar on manifesto modernism, during my first semester in college.

Also, most of my classmates were actually either communists or other far-leftists, which was intimidating, as it meant that I was the only person in the class who hadn’t yet read the book.

But despite the strange turn of events, I decided to stay with the seminar, because I had fallen in love with reading “The Communist Manifesto.”

As a disclaimer, this isn’t to say that I’m a communist, nor is this a stab at being “edgy” and controversial. Rather, when I say that I had fallen in love with reading “The Communist Manifesto,” I mean that learning to read the book was a truly great experience that coming to enjoy was a challenge for me, because of the stigma I held against communism itself.

Which, looking back, is so strange — there’s something suspicious about approaching any text as a hate-read to begin with. Some people hate-watch “Twilight” or “Sharknado,” because, by popular account, these movies are hilariously bad and fun to make fun of — and in the same way, before this class I had only thought to look at “The Communist Manifesto” as a hate-read.

And I think this is partially because the United States tends to treat communism as either a dirty word or a punchline — perhaps as a lingering aftereffect of the Cold War-era anti-communist fervor. I grew up thinking of communism in a way that was deeply conflated with tyranny, death and horrifying civil rights abuses. Plus, due to the weirdly pervasive North Korea and Soviet Russia jokes circulating in popular media, I had sort of also accepted that communism was somehow also absurd and laughable — after all, if James Franco can do it, so can I.

So, why read “The Communist Manifesto,” if not as a hate-read?

Coming into college, I had no idea, and I found it hard to take the manifesto seriously as a piece of literature. And, feeling kind of stranded and forlorn in a classroom populated by seniors who seemed to have a much better grip on this whole college thing than I did, I asked myself this question on the regular, supremely pissed off at my own poor academic decision-making and determined to stay pissed.

But in the end, I was lucky and found myself in an incredibly accepting environment. There, learning alongside classmates who already knew to take the manifesto seriously — not specifically as a set of political directives, but as literature that you can examine level-headedly and in terms of its literary value — I fell in love with reading again, and by extension, with the manifesto.

Part of it was because the book itself has an incredible and fascinating history — it’s kind of mind-bending to think about how influential “The Communist Manifesto” has been, both in terms of history and the literary canon. This manifesto effectively launched an entire genre — it’s literally “genre-defining,” which is a title that you can’t really nail onto many other texts — like, can you even say what the first genre-defining poem was? Nah.

But mostly, the appeal of the manifesto was in the fact that through reading it, I had learned my first really important lesson in college — to cast off biased preconceptions of books and approach reading in a more open-minded way. In short, to read first and think before passing judgment.

So why read a hate-read?

To “broaden your horizons” —  that’s what reading “The Communist Manifesto” did for me. But also, we should read hate-reads because the act of reading is about opening ourselves up to new voices — to engage in a discussion with the author. And by seriously reading a book that you want to hate, you open yourself up to a dialogue that you may not be able to access otherwise.

Lindsay Choi writes Thursday’s column on literature. Contact [email protected].