On reading

I — Conversio—learning the error of my ways

§ A siren’s song

At some point in high school I realized I hated reading. I’m not sure when this happened, but it’s hard to imagine I hated it as a child. If I had to guess I’d say it wasn’t reading per se, but the way reading was taught that turned me away. I know this is true regarding my early hatred of writing, so it seems reasonable to suspect it here. I would also guess that it had a lot to do with what I was asked to read, for, now that I think about it, there were significant exceptions to my aversion. In fact, one of my fondest memories is of a family trip, by car, from Massachusetts to Florida (or was it Georgia? does it matter? are the two really all that different?), in which I laid in the back of the station wagon and read The Hobbit cover to cover. I don’t recall a single thing about what we saw as we drove, or where we stopped, but I have vivid memories of the book itself: down to the cover, paper stock, typeface, heft, and even smell. And yet reading as an act and form was the last thing I wanted to do.

Numbers, on the other hand, I loved. They made sense. They were predictable and followed definite rules. While the theoretical concepts behind them could be hard, once those were learned there were no real surprises. Nor was there ambiguity. Problems had solutions or they didn’t. And if they did, they generally admitted of only one. The game was to understand what formulae applied which problems. As long as the problem could be quantified there was almost always a way forward—perhaps not toward an ultimate solution, for as I would come to learn, even math is based on certain philosophical assumptions, and must, at the end of the day, run up against the same mysteries as religion itself. But there could be progress, which itself was measurable.

Science, unsurprisingly, courted me in the same way. It took the beauty of mathematics and applied it to the chaotic world. It saw everything as so much data to be organized, ordered and explained through hypotheses. And if the hypotheses were wrong and didn’t accord with the data? Simply change the hypothesis and start again. Not only could there be a real advance in knowledge (preparing the ground for me and countless others to be wooed by the category of Kant’s synthetic a priori judgments?), but it could be certain. Science is the knight of truth, the great destroyer of lies, superstitions, myths, and of God himself.

§ Texts as feral: ignorance and fear

Reading, by comparison, was boring. I would sooner try to reconstruct the size, shape and beauty of a tree from its ashes as I would slog through passages like this:

Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone — fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

It’s as if something in my mind was missing, a capacity for translating texts like this into images and realities. The words could be rearranged randomly and would be no more incomprehensible and unappealing to me. Was anything even happening in this passage? At best I could try to force myself to parse and pare it down to something substantial, some meaning, some point that could be captured in one sentence at most and memorized for a test of comprehension: “It was summer, a cat moved and he saw a man in the next yard.” I was not interested in the details but the facts. (And yes, that I then thought the two were somehow separate says much in and of itself.)

Of course, a passage like the above is tame in comparison to the euphuism of others:

If Miss Rebecca Sharp had determined in her heart upon making the conquest of this big beau, I don’t think, ladies, we have any right to blame her; for though the task of husband-hunting is generally, and with becoming modesty, entrusted by young persons to their mammas, recollect that Miss Sharp had no kind parent to arrange these delicate matters for her, and that if she did not get a husband for herself, there was no one else in the wide world who would take the trouble off her hands. What causes young people to “come out,” but the noble ambition of matrimony? What sends them trooping to watering-places? What keeps them dancing till five o’clock in the morning through a whole mortal season? What causes them to labour at piano-forte sonatas, and to learn four songs from a fashionable master at a guinea a lesson, and to play the harp if they have handsome arms and neat elbows, and to wear Lincoln Green toxophilite hats and feathers, but that they may bring down some “desirable” young man with those killing bows and arrows of theirs? What causes respectable parents to take up their carpets, set their houses topsy-turvy, and spend a fifth of their year’s income in ball suppers and iced champagne? Is it sheer love of their species, and an unadulterated wish to see young people happy and dancing? Psha! they want to marry their daughters; and, as honest Mrs. Sedley has, in the depths of her kind heart, already arranged a score of little schemes for the settlement of her Amelia, so also had our beloved but unprotected Rebecca determined to do her very best to secure the husband, who was even more necessary for her than for her friend.

Thackeray, Vanity Fair

And that is only the first two-thirds of the paragraph….All I wanted was for texts to get to the point. Tell me what I need to know and do it quickly so I can get back to doing things, to what I believed to be the real world.

When not boring, indirect and rambling, too often literature was just hard to understand. Not that I wrestled with vocabulary, sentence structures or complex outlines, rather with indeterminacy. I remember developing an early dislike of poetry:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

Keats is not envious of the bird’s happiness, but just annoyed that it is too happy in its happiness? What? And why should it take me twenty re-readings to even get to a point where I can formulate my own confusion as a reader? What kind of lyrical masochist enjoys this?

At other times it seemed the books I was asked to read were just too…old. And not simply by way of time, but by distance. The scenes were foreign to me, the characters strange, the dialog alien, the problems antiquated, the worldview obsolete. And as easy and unfair as it would be to quote Shakespeare or Chaucer, I need only go as far back as the Great Depression:

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

I did not live on a farm, let alone during a time when the weather could dictate the lot of man. My world was one of nascent personal computers and video game consoles, not agriculture. We rode in cars, not on horseback. Our meat did not graze in the pasture, it came wrapped in cellophane and was sold by the pound.

Lastly, texts seemed to be ambiguous in a way that numbers were not. While the next example is anachronistic, in that I didn’t read this until graduate school, it captures in an extreme form the problem that I felt lay at the root of all writing:

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourse, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the word “language” itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words—ignorance—are evidences of this effect. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon.

Derrida, Of Grammatology

I did not choose this passage at random, such that one could accuse me of being unfair by taking a complex section out of context, in which the author has carefully built up his terms and arguments. These are the opening words of the book. While I can do a decent job of trying to explain what he means, after years of studying philosophy and even seeing him speak at a conference, I’m still struck by how insanely and unnecessarily obscure it is. (Which, for the record, he delights in.)

Words were too anarchic, too imprecise, too dangerous, too wild for me.

§ Texts as feral: tolle, lege

Augustine famously recounts his conversion in the Confessions. He had spent his last nine years as a Manichean, a sect that tried to make sense of Christianity by reframing it along dualistic lines. There was light and darkness, good and evil. The gods of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were different, and the difficult texts could be explained away by seeing the world as a mixture of these two ultimate forces. All that was needed was to sharply delineate them and see their ultimate resolution as separation, the goal toward which the universe was moving. Yet he would not only not remain a Manichean, but would go on to be the greatest philosopher and theologian in Western Christianity. But first he had to break free (i.e. be broken free) from his spell. He tells of his experience sitting in the garden, troubled deeply by the preaching of Ambrose, and hearing a child’s voice say, “take, read!”. He turned to a random passage in Romans, and the scales fell off his eyes.

For me the voice came from a diminutive, passionate, brilliant, fierce young woman who was incredulous at my lack of reading. In the same way that friends of mine, to this day, are amazed at all of the great movies I have not seen, she could not understand how it was that I was so poorly read. I honestly cannot remember a thing that led up to her moment of action, but I will never forget it: infuriated and disgusted with me, she tore a sheet of yellow legal paper and furiously wrote down at least twenty titles in pencil. She thrust it at me and commanded me to read them all, and to not speak to her again until I had. I would give anything today to have that sheet of paper in my possession, but I’ll never forget the first book: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I am ashamed to say I had never heard of it. All I know is that, terrified of her wrath, I immediately hunted down a copy and began to read it. And my life would never be the same.

(N.B. In the same way that Monica prayed for her son’s conversion, it’s hard not to think that my own mother’s voracious reading did not prepare the way for my own. While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, she was never without a book, and isn’t to this day.)

Memory is a faithless mistress. She never knows when to capture and record the moments we most wish to remember. At best all we can do is look back and reconstruct, and in this way our memories are no better than dreams and self-spun fictions. I wish I knew where I was when I first opened Gatsby, what my feelings were as I read the opening lines, but I do not. All I know is that, like a kind of Peircian secondness, it absolutely opposed me, opposed every falsehood and stupidity in my being. It divided between my soul and spirit, marrow and bone.

The very aspects of reading that I hated I was now beginning to love. Fitzgerald’s gift for description blew me away. I was starting to see the precision of words, their ability to allow me to see what the author is seeing, to imagine reality in greater detail than I typically notice it myself. When Nick describes first seeing Jordan and Daisy you can feel yourself standing at the edge of the room in which everything is in motion:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. The were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Symbolism also opened up a whole new world of meaning and a way of seeing reality as far more complex than I had imagined. In the 14th century tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it is not just the antagonist that causes the reader to probe the layers of meaning (why is the knight green? is he demonic? the embodiment of the wildness of nature?) but even the smallest details can serve to deepen a scene. When Gawain first approaches the green chapel he descends into a gorge—is it the gate to hell? the depth of nature’s chaos?

Then he presses ahead, picks up a path,
enters a steep-sided grove on his steed
then goes by and by to the bottom of a gorge
where he wonders and watches—it looks a wild place:
no sign of a settlement anywhere to be seen
but heady heights to both halves of the valley
and set with saber-toothed stones of such sharpness
no cloud in the sky could escape unscratched.

The image of menacing stones reaching up to and cutting the clouds themselves is not only dizzying but adds to the fear and sense of helplessness Gawain must have felt. There is no turning back at that point, no way out but forward and downward toward his foe.

Even age became seductively attractive. The world of ancient texts is so much more interesting than the contemporary one. The more foreign the worldview the more I wanted to be open to it, to learn from it, to see the world in ways beyond my modern provincialism. If I could learn to read ancient Chinese I would do it just to read the Zhuangzi, which is one of the most amazing collections of stories I know. I often feel that we are so much the poorer for trying to tackle problems, both practical and intellectual, without knowing the first thing about the great thinkers who took them up before us (cf. my post “On Nietzsche and errors”)

Perhaps what I came to value above all else was complexity—not to be confused with inscrutability or those who write simply to be unintelligible (whose numbers are legion). The urge to reduce, to simplify, to selectively choose what one is willing to see, to create a system and force everything to conform to it not only bores me but angers me. It has gotten me into trouble both in classrooms and relationships. Give me someone who is open, who is willing to say, “this is my best guess, but I could be wrong, and probably am”. Give me thinkers who are not afraid, who understand that the world is so much greater than any of us could ever hope to understand. Thinkers who not only don’t avoid their critics, but seek them out and embrace them as their only true friends. Which, of course, means not being afraid of solitude. Nietzsche has a moving and poetic picture of such free spirits in Beyond Good and Evil, §44:

Having been at home, or at least guests, in many realms of the spirit; having escaped again and again from the gloomy, agreeable nooks in which preferences and prejudices, youth, origin, the accident of men and books, or even the weariness of travel seemed to confine us; full of malice against the seductions of dependency which lie concealed in honors, money, positions, or exaltation of the senses; grateful even for distress and the vicissitudes of illness, because they always free us from some rule, and its “prejudice”, grateful to the God, devil, sheep, and worm in us; inquisitive to a fault, investigators to the point of cruelty, with unhesitating fingers for the intangible, with teeth and stomachs for the most indigestible, ready for any business that requires sagacity and acute senses, ready for every adventure, owing to an excess of “free will”; with anterior and posterior souls, into the ultimate intentions of which it is difficult to pry, with foregrounds and backgrounds to the end of which no foot may run; hidden ones under the mantels of light, appropriators, although we resemble heirs and spendthrifts, arrangers and collectors from morning till night, misers of our wealth and of our full-crammed drawers, economical in learning and forgetting, inventive in scheming; sometimes proud of tables and categories, sometimes pedants, sometimes night-owls of work even in full day; yea, if necessary, even scarecrows—

Are we willing to be inquisitive to a fault?

II — Percipio—learning to read

I did not really learn to read until graduate school, though not for the reasons one may think. It has nothing to do with the difficulty of the texts being read, but of the approach. I had a professor who loved to use the phrase “a gracious reading”, by which he meant suspending one’s natural instinct to critique a text and simply trying to understand it—which, if we’re honest, is anything but simple. I remember him saying that C.S. Lewis makes this distinction in An Experiment in Criticism, though every time I try to find it I never quite succeed. So I’ll just take it as either fact or a beautifully true myth. Every class I took with him followed the same format: we would read original sources, and each week write a 2–3 page précis, which we presented to the group. The précis had to focus in on a small section of text, and the goal was to flesh it out in a way that was both accurate and fruitful. By that he meant our ability to summarize it in a way that, were the author standing next to us, he or she would nod and say, “yes, that’s basically what I meant”, while asking questions that would take the text in new directions. Quibbling and nit-picking were out of the question. Our critiques had to be fruitful, leading to discussions that were worthwhile, that had the possibility of taking thought in constructive ways. It is always easier to tear down than to build. Anyone can find fault with a great work of literature or art. Few there are who could have created it in the first place. This is never to be forgotten, and when the critic does he or she becomes petty and a waste of energy. There is a reason why the classics persevere throughout time: each new generation is moved by them in ways that prior ones were. The classics endure because their voice never dies. The critics, on the other hand, are typically as quickly forgotten as they are read. (N.B. This is why, contra his critics, Bloom is basically right when he defends the idea of a canon as that which continues to inspire people throughout time.)

He also believed in what he called a deep reading, by which he meant slow, focused and comprehensive. My biggest frustration with grad school was the way in which we were encouraged to seek breadth over depth. The reading list in my doctoral program was absurdly long. There is simply no way anyone could get through all of the books on it. Instead, my fellow students skimmed them, then proceeded to talk about them and drop names as if they understood what they were talking about. Since, for the most part, no one else had read them carefully either, this was easy to get away with, for there was no one to speak up and challenge them. And if you did you were seen as pedantic. There are two diametrically opposed assumptions at work. On the one hand is the belief that, if you expose yourself, even superficially, to a wide array of texts, you are better able to comprehend any of them. On the other side, and in my experience, the minority view, is that if you take the time to really wrestle with a few texts and great thinkers, you are able to develop categories, that, even if wrong, allow you to better approach new texts and thinkers. I am the born, sworn enemy of the former approach. I have never seen it produce fruitful thought. The latter, however, will always draw me in. Give me someone who has dedicated his or her life to understanding something and taking it seriously, and I will be the first to sit at their feet and listen.

Why is this so? I am convinced that the superficial approach does nothing to challenge our own assumptions. We merely selectively read and understand things that basically conform to what we already thought before reading them. And the little we think we do understand only happens by forcing it into to our preconceptions that were formed prior to it, and, in all likelihood, in an equally careless way. But there is nothing more difficult than to convince someone, especially ourselves, that our perspective is narrow, weak, pitiful and dishonest. What follows then is an illusion of openness, one that it impossible to break. The careless—and at root, terrified—thinker merely has to point to his or her breadth. “I know better because I have read wider than you. You only follow a few things, I follow many.” In this way the deep reader has no recourse that resonates with her, for the terms of the debate are not commensurate. They shift subtly from the question at hand to the myth of objectivity. But an objectivity without precision and vulnerability is nothing more than tyranny (cf. “On the fixation of belief”)

What struck me most about the sheet of yellow legal paper was not what was written on it, but the disappointment and love in which it was given to me. She was angry because she cared. She could see my narrowness while seeing beyond it. She knew, with a divine wisdom, that if I were to simply open myself up to a wider world I would never be the same. I would give anything to thank her.

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