Careful reading

by CarlD

It sometimes happens that I comment on someone’s blog post, or someone’s comment on someone’s blog post, and then I go back and realize that I pretty much missed the point of what they were saying, or took a snippet of what they were up to out of context. Often this involves me saying what they were already saying as if they hadn’t said it. Or more frequently, if it’s a longer post, it may not be that I missed the point at any point in reading, but that I fixed myopically on a part of a whole to be what I commented on, not doing justice to something that’s actually quite rich. Sometimes by accident this leads to good conversation, but usually not.

We get trained to read hastily. In fact, the educated may be defined as people who read hastily unusually well. In my first graduate seminar the reading list for the first week was all 1000+ pages of Braudel’s The Mediterranean. We never had less than two full books a week after that, plus there was the reading for the research seminar. This is quite manageable, as it turns out, but not if one reads and savors and reflects upon each precious word. Or perhaps I am admitting a personal failing?

the kliban where the caveman pokes the book

the kliban where the caveman pokes the book

The trick is to figure out what has to be read carefully, what can be skimmed, and what can be skipped entirely. Bayard argues in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read that to be cultured is to be oriented toward the general field of knowledge, to know where books fit in relation to other books, to have a ‘feel for the game’ as Bourdieu would also put it. There’s always too much to read to actually be read; Bayard cites Musil’s General, who discovers that to read the contents of one library at a book a day would take ten thousand years, not counting the new books published during that time. Fortunately, as we become aware of more books our ability to categorize new ones on the fly becomes more efficient: “Oh, this is one of those.” “I see, she’s up to this here.” “Ah, this is a replication study of that other.”

humans at work

There are texts, often ‘difficult’ ones that have to be read with great care, although as my grad school anecdote illustrates they often aren’t. These are the primary orienting texts, the ones that define genres or research agendas or theoretical approaches. They sit at the nodes of networks of texts that may be quite wonderful but become increasingly optional as they fan out into developmental minutiae, idiosyncratic takes and contextual translations. With the latter once we figure out the derivation and the subtopic there’s usually little need to go farther, unless one has a personal investment in a particular snippet of conversation or needs that particular data-set for one’s own little contribution.

We are outraged when human beings are stereotyped this way. And yet each text is produced by a human being, a little jewel of communication hung out on the webwork of a billion such. I’m really sorry that I don’t read as carefully and engage as thoroughly as I might sometimes. As a producer of texts myself, I try to be modest in my expectations of others’ readings and to assemble, like some fabulous intertextual Frankenstein, a complete ideal reader from all the partial real ones.

guess which one is me!

guess which one is me!


9 Comments to “Careful reading”

  1. “The educated may be defined as people who read hastily unusually well”–absolutely right.

    The trick is in finding the “primary orienting text.” It’s possible to work your way through dense piece of theory Book X with real care, only to learn later that the real “primary orienting text” for the critic is Book Y.

  2. Undine, so nice of you to drop by. I always enjoy your work at Not of General Interest.

    You’re right about that trick and if there’s time pressure, it’s a doozy. If there’s not, I’m willing to think of it as an opportunity for happy accidents of perspective-shifting to happen. A little ignorance can be very helpful for avoiding the ruts of narrowly self-referential discourse communities.

  3. And when we tell undergraduate students about this, it sounds like we’re sharing a secret: “reading properly, in academia, doesn’t mean reading every single word.”
    Of course, there are different approaches to academic reading. Some “schools” (as local or “national” institutions) impose reading habits which are slower and more careful than what you describe. But what you describe is a valuable skill academics gain, at one point or another. It has to do with the capacity to synthesize. And to focus on “the big picture.”

    Yet, because you mention your own blog-reading habits, there’s an added dimension, if we think about “social media”: distributed reading.
    We don’t have to all read the same things. In fact, despite a tendency for some texts to be more popular than others, social media participants tend to value the diversity of viewpoints and the variety of voices offered by social media in general. Using blogging as a broad example, we like reading multiple blogposts on the same issue and we expect other people to have read other blogposts. Another way to put it is that there’s a sort of tension between this desire to diversify and the tendency to give prominence to some specific texts, if only to trade in attention.
    The initial part of your blogpost sounds (to me) like mea culpa. “Sorry my comments were misled or narrow.” I understand that your main point isn’t about apologizing, but I don’t hear you say “the beauty of comments based on cursory reading is that we can get spark broader conversations which aren’t exegetic.” Sure, some misled or narrowly-focused comments are the basis for flamewars and other misunderstandings. The general idea, though, is that comments take part in a broader process which switches the frame from “the text as revered scripture” to “the text as a conversation-starter.” Academics are (surprisingly) good at tearing texts apart, with little respect for the author’s status or the text’s sacrality. This is another academic skill we can use online.

    All of this I say after skimming your (relatively short) post. If I’m way off, it may just help us build rapport.

  4. Agreed, and toward the end your point dovetails nicely with the one I was making a couple of posts ago in “Tell me I’m beautiful.” The sacred and the ego look pretty similar from the standpoint of defense mechanisms, which makes sense in a durkheimian frame because they’re both about identity and meaning.

    So my image is “text as conversation,” which requires a certain willingness to suspend identification and, as you say, tear texts as such apart. But it turns out conversation is a hard thing compared to sacred/ego-validating choruses and not everyone wants it, so for me the internet doesn’t always pay off.

    Re: not reading the same things, did you see Wesch’s thing about getting students to ‘read’ 94 articles by reading 5 apiece? It’s a cool move along the lines of what you’re saying, and to get that general sense of field I’m talking about. But as a commenter notes, it’s maybe not a great way to teach the sort of careful analytical reading we need to read orienting texts.

  5. Then there’s dear old Roland Barthes, who is interested in why reading gives us pleasure, and the kinds of pleasure that it provides. He actually argues that skipping is part of the pleasure of reading, as we interact with the text and construct it according to our tastes. It’s one of the ways in which an apparently “readerly” text becomes “writerly,” as we manipulate, skip, skim, and misunderstand. It’s all still reading, and it can all be part of enjoying reading, but it’s an understanding of the text as an active space where ideas, words, texts, traditions, images, experiences, etc. meet and mingle. It’s not unrelated to reader response theory.

  6. Awesome Kcwc, that’s a great complication of the analysis here. Of course to read this way does seem to require desacralizing the text, as Enkerli suggests. Or does it? Plenty of good religious folks open the Bible at random and cherrypick favorite psalms for the joy of the language.

    I’m reminded of a long post, early in this blog and still one of my better ones I think, in which I commented on a multiblog discussion of ‘difficult texts’ and had some fun at the expense of masochistic readers. If that sounds worth a moment you can find it here, and I’ve also gone back and added a link above.

  7. @Kcwc Thanks for bringing Barthes along. He’s suffered from lack of academic cred, among French-speakers, but he’s one author I keep at the back of my mind for stimulating ideas.
    Specifically on reading (and going from Barthes to more mainstream «nouvelle critique»), it seems that a number of us are excited about the possibilities afforded social media, in terms of polyvocality and deconstruction. Without mentioning it, we seem to be talking about a post-book world, with post-enlightenment hermeneutics (instead of modernist exegesis).

    @Carl On distributing texts among students… I’ve found that it requires a lot of adaptation because (undergraduate) students aren’t that used to being responsible for a given text. They do something similar with class-wide required readings but there’s still this idea that we should all focus on one set of texts, instead of encouraging the diversity of voices. So, when we come to class with people having read different things, they react as if it were still about “getting it” instead of being about concentric circles.
    One thing I keep in mind is this recommendation for new faculty (not sure who made it): make a list of all the publications to which members of your department subscribe; unsubscribe from those and subscribe to new publications. That way, you’ll have things to discuss. Sounds simplistic, but it’s something I still use while observing tenured faculty members: they tend to remain attached to a few key publications and rarely look outside of the mainstream/canon of those publications they know.

  8. Enkerli this is what I find most valuable about the blogosphere in a nutshell. If I do it right, it never lets me get in a rut.

  9. @Carl Some people see it as a flaw. They’re allowed to do so, but they seem to be building shelters instead of windmills.

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