What’s in a text? A year ago, I wrote a post called why read? whose content and ruminations continue to shape my perspectives on grad school. In this post are the first grumblings of a profound feeling of dread that grows between me and the primary act of my profession – the task of reading. Although I barely broach the notion in that post, beneath the surface, you can pick out a discourse of what I shall call bibliophobia, or the fear of books. In writing this short piece, I hope to delve further into a series of logical and affective knots in my character, with the (perhaps naïve) hope that their exposition will in some way make these knots, these nodes of discomfort, a bit easier to undo.
While reading, I am struck by two feelings. The first is the will to understand what is being read. This goes beyond the basic skills of reading comprehension that are massaged into us as children, the analytical detective work of exposing what a text says. In many ways, this is related to my predisposition to a kind of obsessive and paranoiac anxiety, for all texts say something, but most texts say things to me which they do not seem to say to others. When reading a novel like Une vie de boy, I’m fascinated by questions of textuality, interiority and the diary form in ways which many critics seem to overlook. Within the academic profession, this is a positive factor; I am filling a gap in the scholarship of this particular novel with my own reading. Yet, it is the very idea that few people have looked at Une vie de boy from this perspective which frightens me. I find that I am frightened by the idea of my own unique reading, primarily because I am disturbed with the concept of misreading. I do not want to be wrong, although I resist the idea of a dominant reading.
A better example is critical and theoretical texts. Novels, we have accepted, are inherently subjective. Novels are about things but novels, as Art, do not communicate, do not convey, anything. One can read Madame Bovary as a novel about the decadence of the post-revolutionary French bourgeoisie, or one can read it as a novel about the plight of uneducated French women caught in the snares of pseudo-courtly life. This is perhaps what makes novels novels; that they resist singular readings, and that because they are Art, they do not signify a moral lesson, do not argue anything. Critical and theoretical essays, like the ones I read in grad school, are quite different. Even if we read a text like “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” as the high literature that it is, we ultimately walk away from it with an idea of what it is Spillers wants us to know about the Black body and its carnal information. There is something to be drawn out of these texts which is perhaps more nuanced in the typical novel or poem or piece of theatre. Sure, novels can have agendas, but these agendas are often couched within the curious assemblage of aesthetic, poetic and political practices which are far more fascinating (typically) than whatever it is that Orwell is trying to argue in Animal Farm. But when we read Mille plateaux or La société du spectacle, or The Origin of Others, there is an idea to be extracted, consumed and digested. Or at least, this is the unspoken expectation of every seminar instructor I’ve ever had the pleasure and displeasure to study beside.
This first feeling, the will to understand, is brought about primarily in the moment of encounter with other graduate students, scholars, readers, thinkers, etc. when it comes time to explicate our reactions, interpretations and disagreements with a given text. I am bothered by just how sure people seem of their ability to read and to understand, with their vehemence about the faultiness of a certain argumentative chain, or the narrowmindedness of a certain unspoken point in the author’s logic. I have been for years frightened by the seeming “earthliness” (Said would call this “secular”) of my own readings, for my focus is primarily on the curious domain of social life which many literary critics, it seems, take completely for granted. I am more swayed by the ways that literature offers a gateway into understanding the complicated and unspeakable realities of social life, in how we can trace cultural trends in literary works as kinds of intellectual deposition (in the chemical sense). This is why I read Foucault and Said and Althusser, because I am fascinated with questions of ideology and hegemony which speak beneath and beyond texts, both literary (like the novel) and quotidian (like interpersonal communicative acts, such as speaking and texting.) My ruminations on anxiety as a reading practice only buttress these ideas; to be anxious is to be constantly aware of the fact that something detectable is at the same time missing and unredeemable…
The second sentiment is the will to situate and/or locate texts within an intellectual or cultural milieu. I reckon that this is really the offspring of the first sentiment, although in many ways this feeling remains distinct from a question of exegesis. I also imagine that this is something quite particular the curious tribe of brainy masochists known as the humanists. Immediately when I read a text, I begin thinking of how this text exists in a web of knowledge and ideas. “This is a very Freudian idea.” “Fanon would argue that….” “This is not very Marxist of you.” “DuBois would not call this double-consciousness per se, but…” “Isn’t this what Kimberlé Crenshaw is arguing against?” These impulses are useful, but in moderation. When reading a difficult text, I often have to quiet my mind so as to focus on what the author is actually saying, and not on how I am interpreting them based on X or Y writer. It is unfair to read Claude McKay when I am constantly interrupting myself to think back to what Gramsci had said, even if it is my critical impulse to do so. I find that this gets in the way of engaging a given text in a vacuum, primarily because these interjections take up mental brainpower I should be using towards reading and understanding.
This summer, I began a rigorous regimen of retraining myself to read. Step one was removing all expectation from my mind of what the text will say or how it will say it. Sure, I had organized my reading list based on shared themes of migration and alienation, but I ultimately picked books almost at random from the thematic list I generated. Step two was to read without making any notes or marginalia. This proved quite difficult, for I knew many of the texts I read would resurface in my work. Juicy, discursive sections would have to be rediscovered, but this was all, I suppose, part of the plan. Step three was acknowledging that reading once is never reading enough. This is a spot of advice I was gifted from a professor my first semester of graduate school, and its proven quite useful to managing stress levels and my already too-high expectations for myself. The first time in a new place is always a bit scary. You do not know where the facilities are, you’re unsure of the customs, of what and what not to say, and you sort of bumble around, a bit embarrassingly, until you find your way. This is essentially applicable to every text I come across. It isn’t until about page 50 or 60 that I finally get acclimated to a writer’s style or project, and by then, I have determined whether or not I will like a book or not. Finishing the book the first time through, I am always a bit dizzy from the whirling motion of the author’s prose and the grandeur of their project. Yet, I have absorbed information, even if I cannot articulate it eloquently. Rarely do we read texts without entirely understanding what we have read; even on a grammatical, syntactical level, we glean some information. The second time around, I have a roadmap. I can rely on muscle memory to figure out where things are and how they work. It is only then that I am able to take into account what is around me. The fresh eyes of the first reading allow me to see globally, but the refined eyes of the second, third and fourth readings isolate details which cannot be captured in the global. This all seems so naïve and self-evident, but it took me a while to realize this.
Step four is to read, and to read with purpose. Not every word must be nibbled off, chewed up and swallowed. There is, in fact, an anatomy to a paragraph, even if artists (myself included) like to disagree. I have always felt guilty about skimming, primarily because I feel the special relationship that writers have with their texts, especially if they consider their work in any way artistic. Yet, in the same way that the eye cannot detect and make sense of every square nanometer of a painting, our minds cannot make sense of every turn of phrase, every conjunction, every sentence, even, of a text. Few people possess so photographic a memory as is necessary to completely recall an entire book – and if more people have this skill than I may know, I can rest assured in saying that I do not possess this talent. I cannot weigh myself down with this self-imposed fear of an incomplete or attenuated reading. I am not so dedicated to a given text that I need to analyze every single word and trace every antecedent. This is not my project, and that’s okay.
These two sentiments – the will to understand and the will to locate, to seek and consume – result in the curious case of a mild bibliophobia, a discomfort, but also an uncanny fascination, with written texts. As a child, I did not like reading because I was self-conscious of how slowly I read, but I have always read very closely, and whatever books I did read (The Percy Jackson series, The Phantom Tollbooth, Maus) left a significant impression on me. As a kid, I was hungry for knowledge, but my discomfort with books meant that I turned to television; I would watch Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel and History Channel (when it actually showed documentaries) instead of reading. As I’ve gotten older, my relationship to texts has evolved as I’ve been forced to read more frequently, and thus more efficiently. Being in grad school has reinstated a mild childhood bibliophobia, but from a different angle. I am now not concerned with the arbitrary task of “what to read?” so much as I find the question of “how to read?” far more open-ended. Last year, my question was “why read?” if reading is only a kind of reflection of our own desires and wishes and viewpoints, if we only read what we read in order to situate our own lives and our own selves therein. Now I am finding that I am more grounded within a traditional academic methodology of studying and reading, and I am a bit disconcerted with what seems to be the standard for others, but not for me. To reuse my metaphor, I am still bumping around in dark, but this apartment is uncanny; it is both familiar to me and entirely unknown.
Perhaps this is something every literary critic must wrestle with: the simultaneous fascination and fear of what is written and what is unwritten, of what speaks in language and what signifies through silence.
Image: Julie Mehretu, Empirical Construction