Friday, May 16, 2008


Now that the semester is officially over (I turned in my grades yesterday), I’m reading again. I say “again” because during the semester, it seems, one is rarely able to read, really. Of course, there is a lot of reading going on: the assignments you ask the students to read, the assignments you ask the students to write -- since I was tutoring for Daily Themes, that meant about 45 brief pieces of prose, 250-300 words each, a week, as well as many responses and drafts from freshman comp. The reading of student work is a particular kind of reading: it’s reading that can’t be in any sense passive, to simply take in information or follow an argument or be entertained. The reading has to be active, directed, pointed because you will have to comment, have to offer -- in that term we use from electronics, for some reason -- feedback. Feedback that, in this case, isn’t just noise in the signal, distortion caused by resistance, but is supposed to be constructive and helpful and meaningful.

It’s involving, certainly, such reading. But it also makes me begin to feel rather harried after awhile -- particularly as I am by nature not the kind of reader who feels a great need to respond to much of what I read. I generally just let writing wash over me, allowing it to trickle in and pool wherever it can in my ragged cranium. That’s the kind of reading I thrive on, but it’s a kind of reading that is, I realize more and more, all too rare in this vale of tears.

That’s because when one is in college one reads for a purpose. Bear in mind, I spent my formative years (when most are being formed by the college of their choice or of their fate, as the case may be) reading whatever and however I damn well pleased. Not for me the “syllabus experience” of reading, so that, when I finally encountered such, I noted at once the change it made in my reading practice. Of course, I’d always read pen in hand, marking the text, making marginal comments, sometimes making notes separately -- I always imagined, next to whatever published work I might myself contribute, a vast array of books read and marked by me, the raw material as it were of my great endeavor with the printed word. I was proud to leave traces for my later self or for my descendants or (flattering myself) for researchers who would be curious to see what I drew attention to by marking. Eventually such thoughts became beside the point because I marked things for useful purpose, to find quickly what I’d noted, passages which, in college, became the basis for papers and exam crammings. But what I discovered about syllabi reading was how liberating it was: you needn’t concern yourself with the choice of the next book to read -- it was already decreed! You just had to go down the list. And you know how I love lists...

Granted, I’d made myself all kinds of lists of things to read over the years. In fact, I sometimes chose courses -- as I’m sure some of us do -- not based on who was teaching it, or who else was taking it, but on how many texts on the syllabus were also on my lists. This was less the case in Graduate School where, in a sense, there’s no point in taking any classes. The point is to read everything. Syllabi help, in the early going. And then it was that I did take classes because of who was teaching it -- Cornel West, for instance (did I really need to read David Hume for a whole semester?) -- and of who was taking it as well: because part of the grad school experience is what happens in the seminar room and you want your companions to be ones that keep it interesting. I sometimes fondly recall the days of “passing notes,” as it were, by stating what one got out of -- or by hearing what a particular someone else got out of -- a passage. For some this might be an undergrad experience, but I was still perhaps too much an autodidact in college to be much impressed by the explications at hand. But I’m sure I’m not the only student to be fixated on his own ideas and what the professor says, indifferent to any other voices in the room.

It’s after graduate school, then, while in some sense “a professional reader” -- or “a professorial reader,” or, at least, a Ph.D’d reader -- that the trouble begins. Not, as I was just saying, the kind of reading you do for class: a syllabus (mine!), the stuff the students (a list themselves) write. Easy. But the other kind of reading -- for myself -- becomes a difficulty.

The professional approach would be easiest: you choose books by their proximity to your field or by their author’s proximity to yourself. So, friends (and maybe enemies -- always keep them closer than friends, as Don Corleone advises) in your area first, then everyone else, rank ordered by some whim, or by reviews, word-of-mouth, press, catchy title, etc. But that kind of reading -- to the freewheeling reader I once was -- feels like a trap. Head filled with visions of a kind of Herculean Sisyphus (he cleans out the Augean stables by reading everything published this year only to see them fill up again next year), I tend to want to believe that, having attained my “degree of comfort” (ha!), I should be able to read as I damn well please, knowing full well that such an assertion means something fateful: that I don’t damn well want to read what gets published in my field, and therefore I’m not really a professional, because that’s tantamount to being a “company man” who wants to keep company with the profession’s practitioners. True, my assertion of readerly autonomy assumes the same cry of the student beleaguered by syllabi: "one day I’ll read what I want to read, when I get out of college!" is the cry of the professional reader: "one day I’ll read what I want to read, when I retire!" Me, I read what I wanted to read before college and, it seems, before I retire, so I find it very hard to defer. Deferring was what being a student was about, but what, really, is being “a master” about?

Change that to “a professor”: one who professes . . . what, exactly? All I’m here professing is that I like to read what I feel like reading, write what I feel like writing. Clearly there can be no monetary value to either act. They are momentary acts expressive of desire, such as choosing to watch TV or not, or choosing to eat out or stay home and cook. It matters not to a single other person what I in my solitary readerly desire elect to do. And it’s only that sense of “ought” that comes from those who do what they want and get paid for it -- the success stories -- or those who insist that what you want should be what is best -- the ethicists -- that makes one feel a need to make a case. The only happiness, it’s said, is doing what virtue dictates, the only happy life is being free to do what is good. And by such standard, then, the only criteria for “what to read” is that it be good to read and, thus, makes me happy to read it. Such a standard then permits one to be, at once, a critic with a stake in the matter (regardless of expertise) because if something one reads isn’t good, and doesn’t make one happier for having read it, then we can say that its virtues are lacking, a fact that it is good of the critic to point out, lest others waste their time with a less-than-good object.

The position I’ve just outlined is, I think, my mature statement of my case as a reader. But I have to say that it is what I intuitively (nodding to Emerson here) followed when as a youth I read what I felt I needed to read, or wanted to read (since it came to the same thing). The difference that my education makes is that it makes me more willing to exercise the critical spirit -- why such-and-such a work is a waste of time -- more deliberately. But, by the same token, the only reason I’m more likely to do that is because I’ve read many more things that dissatisfy than I would have as a young man. Then I would simply look at a few pages and decide to read it or not, with complete indifference to reputation, word-of-mouth, inclusion on syllabi or on the bookshelves of influential minds, and so forth. Now, I suppose, late as it may be in my own life and in the history of the world, I feel more of a need to be “engaged” by “the times.”

But there’s another point too that I don’t want to neglect: the choice of reading material then and now had mainly to do not with a need for information -- as when wanting to understand, for instance, ancient Greek architecture, or to know something of a great writer’s life, or to have a grasp of historical chronology and, to some extent, causality -- but with a need for (to use that other electronics term) “input.” Let words wash over one as a great electromagnetic wave of streaming strings of electrons and protons and let some of them agitate the ones in your brain, happily (but virtuously?) bouncing around on their own little electrical circuits. But to what purpose? As I knew “then” and still dream “now”: why, writing, of course. One only achieves writing by acquiring writing: by reading, in other words. So, what have I been reading? Well, that’s another story...

Comicbooks, roadmaps, the Bible, pornography
Anything you want to read
Go out and sit in a field some time
--Paul Westerberg, "Knockin' on Mine" (1993)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

My feedback: a fascinating post! I hope you get a few hits from my recommendation of it on my blog.