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 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.”
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.