the why of non-reading and why i’m still a mediocre non-reader

Not sure I ‘d ever find the exit again

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.

listen to him


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:

  1. thoroughly consider why you think this is a helpful concept (so examine thineself)
  2. if you can’t find the source (in an actual book or article), let it stand on its own
  3. 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.


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…or I shalt be subjected to conflagration

Sources for misattributed quotes:

  • some famous ensamples:
  • egregious and harmful examples:
  • 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):
    • 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:

On Non-reading:

A fellow addict: (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)


Chasing Location and Author-ship in Foucault’s Example

In explaining the work undertaken in The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’Archeologie du Savoir) Foucault relates what he is herein attempting to say with that which was said in his prior works (namely Madness and Civilization, Naissance de la clinique, and The Order of Things).  These are his landmarks for the discourse (largely about discourse/discursive practices) he would seek to free ‘from all anthropologism’ (Archaeology trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith p. 17). 

When I first read this (and the statement which follows), it thoroughly struck me that Foucault was learning the language with which to approach his research project.  But what he published was still, though released/published, a series of thoughts incomplete of themselves.  They were, as our words truly are, as likely to point the reader to the wrong stars as to provide a coherent means of navigating the waters with Foucault’s instruments.  To be honest, I don’t understand what was wrong with these works (I have n’t read them as yet and might not even then be in the proper position to see the weaknesses in his own publishings Foucault saw or was made aware of) and so won’t illustrate the specific items.  It is enough to hear Foucault admit:

It is mortifying that I was unable to avoid these dangers: I console myself with the thought that they were intrinsic to the enterprise itself…


The enterprise itself does not concern us here, but we must again note that it was not something Foucault was immediately able to recognize in his own writings – how to retool his language so that it better served his purposes and was free from the language used by ‘anthropologistic’ historical methods.  The succeeding lines shout loudest where I can but underline:

“[W]ithout the questions that I was asked, without the difficulties that arose, without the objections that were made, I may never have gained so clear a view of the enterprise to which I am now inextricably linked.  Hence the cautious, stumbling manner of this text: at every turn it stands back, measures up what is before it, gropes towards its limits, stumbles against what it does not mean, and digs pits to mark out its own path.”

~ibidem, p. 17 – emphasis mine

I could n’t identify more with such sentiments.  We expect, too often, in reading some work that the author’s ideas are fixed and stable (why else should they put their author-ity at stake) and probably assume that all decisions are consciously made.  Foucault exemplifies how this is not the case for he cautions the reader that he may in fact not be going about this in the best way.  He only knows that this is what can be said at this moment in pursuit of this goal.  At every moment he is questioning (and invites the reader to question) how the current assertion can be supported and what precisely that knowledge is serving.  Hence he says:

I have tried to define this blank space from which I speak, and which is slowly taking shape in a discourse that I still feel to be so precarious and so unsure.


Not only does he know that his research may be misunderstood (and used to serve ends of which he does not approve), he suspects that the approach he takes may counteract his purpose.  He may not only be misunderstood, he very well may misunderstand his own project!  For all energies sacrificed to achieve a location from which to speak, an author such as Foucault may find that such a location is entirely unsuitable.  It is unsurprising then that he is cautious, even halting, in his approach.

But if Foucault is unsure of his location, how is one to counteract his assertions?  He gives voice to his detractors in saying:

‘Aren’t you sure of what you’re saying?  Are you going to change yet again, shift your position according to the questions that are put to you, and say that the objections are not really directed at the place from which you are speaking?  Are you going to declare yet again that you have never been what you have been reproached with being?  Are you already preparing the way out that will enable you in your next book to spring up somewhere else and declare as you’re now doing: no, no, I’m not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here, laughing at you?’


Surely this is not a fair case if the author can perpetually evade her detractors by maintaining ‘I am not really there, but here – although, I can see why you thought so’.  But such maddening displays are true to life.  While we do speak from a location, we may not be the best author-ities to tell another where that location is.  It is, rather, injudicious of us to expect that a writer to accomplish his ends by way of the simplest definitions.  Instead, we find that we are grasping for landmarks by which to locate from whence the author is speaking – even as the author is attempting to do so! 

Misunderstandings then, as I am attempting to use the term for this moment from wherever here may be, might also describe such landmarks.  They are impressions by which we might just succeed in locating ourselves for long enough to utter some meaningful misunderstanding.  If such is the case, we would do best to tread lightly and think from as many locations as possible as we attempt to engage in that discourse we (and the author) are pressing for.


For those who would attempt to follow such guidelines I offer Foucault’s words:

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.  Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.  At least spare us their morality when we write.