On reading and disengagement

Last week I asked you to give me, on anonymous slips of paper, any questions about Arts One you wanted answered but didn’t quite want to ask in public. One member of the seminar had a fantastic (translation: impactful and probably universal) question: “What’s the best way to read things that don’t strictly interest you and still get something out of them?”

I have a few ideas about this.

* A lot of academic reading—regardless of one’s major—will end up being secondary material. It’s background. Reading it is like arriving at a cocktail party and listening to the conversation before contributing to it. Very often what you hear is banal. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s offensive. Occasionally it’s incredibly exciting and/ or it offers flashes of insight that can, at times, be made to last and shed light elsewhere.

* Our colleague’s question recognizes that, even among primary texts–even the great list of readings for Arts One!–some will appeal to or engage you (individually and collectively) more than others. Sometimes it’s helpful to try to broaden the parameters of appeal by asking questions about them: why does this bore me? Or: why does this anger me? Or you can ask yourself why a particular text has become important, influential (read: frequently read or frequently re-made) or popular.

* It is probably inevitable that, sometimes, you will fail to read something. (For me it’s The Brothers Karamazov. I can’t get through it. It used to be Heart of Darkness, but then my interests changed and Conrad’s work made itself newly available. Once upon a time it was George Eliot’s Romola. But that novel became irresistible once I got past the first chapter/ finally travelled to Florence/ compared the modes of narration and characterization to James’s imitation of them in The Golden Bowl.) There is a game, in David Lodge’s Changing Places, that you win by NOT having read the book everyone else has read. If you haven’t read Hamlet, you usually win. The existence of this game suggests that readerly failures are ubiquitous enough to be amusing to discuss in public. That said, try to keep your failures to a minimum. Don’t assume any one of them is permanent. If you are failing a lot, ask yourself whether you need to rethink your expectations about, or your ways of understanding, your reading experience.

* Not all reading experiences can–or should–be understood as productive, ending in a gain. How else can you think about them?

* Consider reading not as one activity but as a variety of activities, with different speeds, purposes, and emphases. Entertainment is a possible outcome, but not a typical one. It’s possible to find engagement in reading without being entertained. Fun and pleasure are not the same thing. Neither are excitement and enjoyment.

* Sometimes you just have to embrace boredom. (If it helps, Heidegger wrote in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics that “boredom is an attunement”–a feeling of what matters that might also remind us that WE matter by insistently reminding us of ourselves.)

* When you are reading for information, try not to bog down in the local. If you are reading an essay: plan to write a summary of no more than three sentences, then do it before you put the journal away. If you are reading a book: plan to write a summary of no more than a paragraph 1/3 of a page long. Along the way, write one-sentence summaries of each chapter. As you read, tape-flag striking quotations and passages you don’t understand but suspect might be important.

* When you are reading for form, rhetoric, aesthetic experience, don’t worry too much about the big picture. Read the text through, but focus your attention on what local insights offer your reading of it. Ask yourself what the text wants you to do with it, and who the text wants you to be.

What do you think? How would you advise a reader wondering how to read texts that don’t, at least at first, seem to promise much pleasure or engagement?

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