Reading strategies I: Degrees of reading

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Anyone contemplating doctoral studies should first read this little book by the French literature professor Pierre Bayard called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t ReadThe book is a provocation (a point that many reviews promptly missed) – but extremely good in reminding us that reading is a problematic activity, and one that should be embraced as such. There is no thing as “having read a book”, Bayard argues, because of the subjectivity of the reading process and the uniqueness of interpretive communities. We talk around books that we know but haven’t read, skim selectively, forget randomly and fuse what we remember together with ideas, dreams, and anxieties that are unique to us, the readers. This is a point that most humanities scholars easily accept when analyzing others,but is less often thought of in terms of personal practice.

Here are a couple of examples that are of particular relevance to those us who read for a living:

“Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

Bayard uses Joyce’s Ulysses as an example, but historians might substitute Joyce for Braudel, political scientists for Habermas, sociologists for Bourdieu, and so on. I am quite sure that every discipline has someone who is a really big deal, but is 80% of the time read through secondary works, summaries and reviews.

“[T]he books we talk about are only glancingly related to “real” books—indeed, what else would we expect?—and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion.”

Indeed, is this not the one of the more common ways of relating your work to other scholarship? As much as we would like to take others’ works in their own terms, this can only be done to a limit, because no other scholar has precisely the same questions as you. So what often ends up happening is that we excerpt them, read and interpret them selectively, and set them up as foils for our own arguments.

Bayard also asks what to make of the problem that all reading is – by the nature of our memory – transitory.

“We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.”

Indeed, for doctoral students, nowhere does this become more apparent than during that ultimate rite of initiation, the year-long process of general exams reading. If you are required to “read” 150+ books over the course of a year, in addition to all your other work, the ease with which you forget their contents, even after taking copious notes and writing outlines can feel quite traumatic. The process is often quite inexplicable – two books can be equally fascinating, equally well-written and compelling, yet one of you can forget overnight while fragments of the other one remain forever logded in your brain.

The point is not that “reading” a book is a completely futile activity and that anything goes (that most common misreading [he-he] of postmodernism). Still, to be super practical about this, if we own the fact that reading is a problematic process, if we know to expect lapses of memory, fragmentary impressions, and impressions formed from reading around a book, then perhaps we can let go of that perennial anxiety of “not having done the reading” (one that remains acute long into the latter stages of the degree) – and start talking about reading as a dynamic, flexible and even fun process.

The next couple of posts will be about that.

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