Been thinking a lot about reading lately — mostly as I ‘ve not been able to do much of the reading I wish to. I tend to go a little crazy in-between reads, but then there’s a certain craze always in my process as a reader. Theoretically, or imaginatively, I intuit that there is no reading without purpose. Sadly, my purpose is occasionally only to say that I have read. But what does that mean?
What I think I think about reading~
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read gave me a few categories for non-reading which help me think about reading more clearly. The vast majority of what we read fades into the recesses of memory — often to unrecognizable forms. They become part of our ‘screen books’ in which our readings serve our own purposes. I try to be honest — most of my ‘author’ial citations are for the purposes of establishing my own view’s authority. Author-authority — I ‘m engaging in some measure of an argument from authority when I cite my interpretation of X.
And our society engages in a goodly measure of this activity. It even leads to pseudepigraphal (mis)attributions which are patently false. C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Einstein, Sherlock Holmes (‘elementary my Dear Watson’), St. Francis of Assisi (‘Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words’), Marie Antoinette (‘Let them eat cake’…was Rousseau and quite possibly speaking of another dignitary), or (of course) Mark Twain. Why then is this the case? The best I can offer is that if we hear an idea, and it sounds particularly appealing, we are most willing to accept its authority if we can find a suitable authorial source.
One of my favorite authors says, more or less, that we ought to affirm an idea based on its truth rather than based on its source and reject an idea for its untruth by the same measure. You can see that I ‘m not willing to let the author go, but I am willing to affirm that we are the active agents in discourse — we are the ones expressing our sentiments and seeking to show their solidity. I recommend three items (you might suggest your own) as I have struggled with this thought:
- thoroughly consider why you think this is a helpful concept (so examine thineself)
- if you can’t find the source (in an actual book or article), let it stand on its own
- before filling out the citation line, give pause one last time to see whose purpose you ‘re serving by attributing this author’s voice to this idea
See, there ‘s some problem in that we limit authors to a certain location in our discourse as a society. They occupy this space and no other. E.g., it is shocking to some evangelicals how un-evangelical C.S. Lewis really is. Or, Bertrand Russell is afforded a certain role as a genius. This may be the case, but I personally have n’t found his works helpful or challenging toward helpful ends. If the author is n’t given a chance to surprise us, as real people so often do, we are treating them as points on a spectrum (and stationary points at that) and they are less likely to rock us off our base/to challenge our pre-supposed view of reality. Therefore, we have to be careful to allow the writer to be the author to some extent — let her or his words speak in this space and interact with them in that space (even challenge why they chose this space).
It is in this sense that we too ought to approach reading as authors. Reading should not be a passive activity, for then it is only an act of memory. We should instead be able to not only interact but interact critically with those whom we read. Such an approach does justice to the fact that we are operating in discourse as well. Otherwise we too fade away as the reading passes into inaccessible memories.
~What my reading actually looks like
But further, my external philosophy of reading conflicts with my motivations as a reader. I want to do justice to the author, but I ‘m also looking for thoughts I can use. Even though large portions of the book won’t prove useful, I still hold onto this fear that I ‘ll miss something important if I do n’t read every word. While I know that I will remember impressions rather than words, I still find myself racing through pages in the interest of saying that I have ‘read’ this work. For reading is the means by which I establish myself as an authoritative critic.
As I suggested, I give the author a chance to surprise me; but too often I judge myself as a reader based on whether I have completed every page (and forgotten its contents) rather than what thoughts I have gleaned and meditated fruitfully upon. The latter are the very purpose for which I read, but I still fall into the trap of reading for completion. The quantitative overrides the qualitative and I ‘m left with another forgotten book and not enough to say.
Am I reading to say I have read, or to encounter ideas and be changed by them? This has rightly bothered me in the last few weeks, but I ‘m not sure I ‘ve come much closer to any form of an answer. I can only say that I am better aware of some mis-purposes my reading may serve and that I wish to continue reading despite this.
Sources for misattributed quotes:
- some famous ensamples: http://theydidnotsay.tumblr.com/
- egregious and harmful examples: http://onviolence.com/?e=225
- Wiki’s offering (everything from minor errors to major blunders; I ‘m most interested in those which fit the category of mis-attribution because this calls into question the relation of assertion and the authority of the asserter): http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations
- I could n’t find examples I was thoroughly satisfied with here. Perhaps you, as the critical reader, can provide help in this matter. I ‘m looking for anything relating to what it says about a society when misattribution is evidenced.
- case study of something C.S. Lewis did not and almost certainly would not have said: http://mereorthodoxy.com/blog/you-dont-have-a-soul-cs-lewis-never-said-it/
- another reader’s summation of non-reading; but then you could just read How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. http://karlomongaya.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-fine-points-of-non-reading/
- A non-reading which interacts better with Bayard’s core idea (overcoming shame in non-reading): http://enotes.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/how-to-talk-about-books-you-havent-read/
A fellow addict:
http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2012/09/06/booklove/ (reminds me of the sad priest in Les Miserables who I commiserated with as he sold his last tomes…but then Les Mis was an extended series of miseries)