As I mentioned the other day, there seems to have been a feeling about that being in lockdown is an occasion to catch up on lots of reading. It’s an interesting genre, the ‘what to read while socially distancing’, because it implicitly acknowledges a kind of constitutive anxiety about not having read enough (of the right things) that certain sorts of people, people like me, suffer from. It’s a weird anxiety to have, not least because to a large extent, reading it what I do for a living – even the kind of writing I do is often a form of commentary on other texts, on things I’ve read (about).
Reading is a many-sided thing in my corner of the academic world. I read lots of emails, on very different topics and of different genres; I read minutes of meetings and agendas and drafts of policy documents and exam papers; I read student essays, and more specifically, I mark them, which is a very specific kind of reading; I read letters of recommendation; and I also re-read things I have written, things like student handbooks, exam questions, carefully crafted e-mails to colleagues.
Then there is the strange world of reading academic literature, the very crux of what people like me do. Reading academic papers and books is a rather odd form of reading, sometimes more intense than the kind of reading you do on holiday on the beach, but very often a lot more superficial. Reading of this sort can be very physical (you do it with a pen or pencil in hand, sitting up straight). It involves annotating, underlining; I write all over the things I read (much to my mothers’ enduring distaste), cross-referencing, inferring, remembering. I often read academic literature out loud, quietly, and much to the amusement of my children, because only by sounding things out do certain sorts of arguments make sense. These aren’t necessarily very effective ways of learning, it should be said. Much of this sort of reading is done for a purpose – to cite, to elaborate, to gloss what has been said. Academic reading can take the form of systematically superficial speed-reading (a large part of teaching undergraduate students in a ‘research intensive’ university involves teaching a set of implicit, poorly formulated, often unacknowledged skills of skimming texts). This sort of reading tells us something about the ways in which lots of academic writing takes the form of reporting things – how experiments were designed, evidence generated, results analysed, conclusions justified.
And sometimes, in academic worlds, reading is something myself and others do to each other.
There are, in turn, a whole set of ways of reading which are themselves forms of getting to know things. This may include various ‘methodologies’: discourse analysis, textual analysis; or more precise variants of these catch-all terms: deconstruction, or reader-response criticism, or generalised semiotics (much disdained these days, but oddly pervasive in those fields which most loudly disclaim ‘textualism’ or ‘the discursive’ yet continue to suppose that ‘non-human’ agency is best affirmed by imagining that the whole world is structured like a grammatically correct sentence).
And then there is the strange world of TheoryLand, a field of work which relies on a whole set of practices of reading (and writing about one’s reading), which are in large part at odds with the assumptions about reporting that define ‘normal’ academic reading. TheoryLand is a world defined perhaps above all by a certain sort of pomposity about proper reading, of close, immersive reading – it’s a pomposity that has its clearest expression in discussions of the ‘ethics of reading’ by writers such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. In TheoryLand, you are meant to have read loads of things, but also to have read them really, really carefully, so that all texts worthy of this sort of reading (and who decides that?) are read as carefully, sequentially, as their authors assume they are going to be read when they are writing them. It’s a world shaped by assumptions about about being taken over by the text that underwrite formal and informal ideas about the virtues of ‘difficulty’ as a marker of value. The pleasures of the text, in this sort of reading, are oddly disembodied, apart perhaps when people are doing criticism, which often takes the form of saying that someone else hasn’t read things as well, as carefully, as faithfully, as the critic.
In my world, a large part of the process of induction into professional academic life works through books, in particular, in the form of telling students that ‘you should read this‘. Knowing what to tell a student to read is pretty much the only talent I have, although just to be clear, knowing what they should read is not quite the same thing as having read what you are recommending (and that’s neither as shameless or shameful as it might sound): one of the requirements of academic seniority is learning that it’s OK to get other people to read the things you haven’t had time to read yourself.
This idea that there are some things one just must read brings to mind, perhaps, the idea that there is a canon to master. That might be the case in some fields, in the humanities. It’s not an idea that makes much sense in GeographyLand, although there are people who think it should. I once tried to invent a very sad after-dinner party-game for Geographers, in which each person tried to admit to the books that they hadn’t read that it seemed to them that everyone else thinks that one really should have done. But it turns out, in GeograpyLand, that few if any of the things that you haven’t read actually rise to the level of generating professional shame. Anyone you are likely to play this game with, by virtue of being a professional academic in GeographyLand, is living proof that the canon arrived at in this way isn’t really canonical anyway – on the basis of my sample, it turns out that it’s possible to get along fine without ever having read Explanation in Geography, or Traces on the Rhodian Shore, or Topophilia, or Uneven Development, or Pivot of the Four Quarters, or Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (or is it the other way around? Oh, it doesn’t matter).
I mentioned this ‘game’ to a graduate student (without a first degree in Geography), who said it reminded them of the Humiliation game in David Lodge’s Changing Places (not read it myself), where admitting to not having read Hamlet leads to professional disgrace for one character. Of course, this model of canonical knowledge, and the image of reading associated with it, does not travel well to fields where command of a textual field is not so central. In fact, I am inclined to think that the break out of Theory in GeographyLand over the last four decades or so (and it is worth remembering that the single most important work of geographical theory produced in that period is a singularly scholarly exercise in critical exegesis) has led to an interesting internal cleavage that mirrors, at one remove, the succinct definition of the division between ‘Continental Philosophy’ and analytical philosophy provided by Stanley Cavell (don’t ask me where). He suggests that ‘Continental Philosophy’ is a genre recognisable because writers in that tradition perform as if they have read everything there is worth reading (which it turns out might not be very much, if you’re Heidegger), whereas analytical philosophers profess to focus on problems as if they haven’t read anything at all (apart perhaps from Wittgenstein, who is often read as if he’d never read anything himself). There is a dizzying dynamic of knowing and knowing that both of these styles of thought sets in train – and there is a whole architecture of academic personae built around this broad distinction, revolving around a culture of pretending to read only for the things reported and a culture of pretending to read only for what things really mean.
The Pleasures of the Text?
Because reading is important to what I do professionally, and because what I do professionally is wrapped up in all sorts of anxieties associated with either not having read enough or not having read properly, I have a fraught relationship with reading for pleasure or relaxation. I’m not very good at reading novels – I tend to have to trap myself into doing this, by taking novels into the bath for example. Reading has all sorts of occasions and spaces in fact – I read a lot of Marx as a graduate student, for example, and an awful lot of that was on trains and buses. I always over pack books for plane journeys, and I have managed to read not only cricketers’ biographies but also very manly books about flying planes in a single flight. The reason for a beach holiday is primarily to force oneself to read things one might otherwise not get around to. I’m learning to like reading in the garden, listening to sparrows. Quite a lot of this reading (not the Marx) depends on finding ways of retreating or holding off other tasks or other distractions, in a kind of forced withdrawal, or it takes place in the interstices of other activities (on journeys, on holiday, waiting to do other things).
Reading as a way of passing the time, or killing time while waiting, or as escape, is rather a different practice from the sort of professional reading that academics and scholars and intellectuals do – it doesn’t figure much in arguments about the edifying worthiness associated with ideas of literary reading that are so common in the humanities. Because of this difficult relationship between reading and precious time, I fret quite a lot about starting novels, in case I start something which I can’t then maintain an interest in.
And one way of thinking about the different sorts of reading one can engage in is by thinking about the status of unfinished books. Academic books, of course, aren’t really meant to be read all the way through, from front to back. There’s no shame in reading bits of an academic book, selected chapters. I’m not worried about never having read all sorts of things, but I do worry about not having finished things I have started. I have never finished The Thin Man, because I quickly got the point about its importance lying in the quality of the dialogue early on and lost interest in the mystery. I never managed to complete Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder, because it’s one of those books which is rather transparently a bit of allegorised Theory, the kind of novel that reflects back to academic critics the kinds of ideas they always already project onto the literary in the first place. I should have finished Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about a town in self-imposed lockdown during the Spanish flu epidemic in the USA a hundred years ago, and keep thinking I should go back and do so now, but now it’s not so enticing a prospect; likewise, with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. When I was 16, I took Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on holiday with me because it was a set text for A Level English. I can remember reading Chapter 3 on the plane home (planes, again), and thinking it was a rather obvious metaphor for life’s struggles (it’s about a turtle trying to cross the road), and realising that I would have to write an essay about this chapter, which then seemed like a total waste of time when that is exactly the task that was assigned. I gave up English at that point, as well as never finishing the book, although I don’t think that I have ever managed to escape a love/hate attachment to the interpret-ability of things that revealed itself then.
I’ve now found the perfect way of dealing with this anxiety about not knowing what to start in case I don’t finish it. I’m walking around a lockdowned house, carrying a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities with me from room to room, and occasionally finding the time to read one of its short, essay-like chapters. It’s actually quite good fun. It’s modern, for sure, but not difficult in a writerly way – that’s not a kind of pleasure I find myself disciplined enough, or smart enough, to enjoy. I realise that this sounds like an absurdly pretentious sounding thing to drop into a blog post. But the point is that Musil didn’t finish this book. So I figure that it’s OK if I don’t either.