3. Reading Together
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “If you are listening to what people are saying… they will explain how and why they are deeply attached, moved, affected by the works of art that make them feel things.” —Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” —Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 At several key moments in drafting this chapter, I found myself stricken by a particular kind of anxiety that has dogged my writing across my career, an anxiety brought on by my sense that I had not yet read enough to be certain what it was I wanted to say. The reading that I felt myself in this instance missing is a specific mode of scholarly work, one driven by something more than curiosity, or open-ended exploration of the ideas of others. This mode of scholarly reading is instead about mastery, due diligence, and the forestalling of disagreement. It’s about competition, both with what I am reading and with the ways that I project that I might be read. I do not mean to suggest that scholarly reading is only instrumental in nature, but it does strike me that my anxieties about not having read enough, and my almost uncontrollable desire to retreat from writing in order to read more before putting fingers to keyboard, were driven in no small part by worries about competing readings, at least from that percentage of its audience that finds both utility and satisfaction in a deep and abiding skepticism.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 It’s possible, of course, that these anxieties are particular to me, or to my field: as a scholar trained in literary studies, my relationship to reading is of a pretty specific nature. Reading is both the subject and the method of my field, and the sense of never having done enough of it—or worse, the nagging sense of maybe having done it wrong—may well be a problem local to my corner of the campus. But I don’t think so. In fact, I suspect that concerns about the reasons and the methods through which scholars engage with the materials of their fields, and with one another in the process, is endemic to the profession as a whole, and that reading might be able to stand in, in this chapter, as one representative form of that engagement. Reading is, after all, both a practice that scholars of literature participate in on a professional level—and like all things professional, at times competitively, seeking to create distinction for ourselves through the unique results of our reading—and a practice that we participate in on another level in the classroom, as we work to bring students into the field. And of course reading and its associated forms of interpretation form a component of all academic fields, whether what’s being read and interpreted is the previous literature on a topic, or the data that has gathered in pursuit of a hypothesis. So I suspect that concerns about whether we’ve read enough, or whether we’ve read correctly, may be found everywhere on campus, and that reading itself might be able to function in the context of this exploration as a metonymy for many different modes of inquiry in which scholars in many different fields engage.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Moreover—and it’s possible that I am again mostly exposing my own personal anxieties here, rather than broadly shared and even structurally generated anxieties, but again, I don’t think so—there’s a relationship between these worries about how I read, about how others will perceive and respond to my reading, and the ways in which the classroom has at moments in my career become a space around which my anxieties localize. I worry, all the time, about being insufficiently prepared, about the enormous gaps in my knowledge that might be uncovered. It’s imposter syndrome, of course, that lurking certainty that I’m not really qualified to be doing what I’m doing. And it has only gradually dawned on me that perhaps the classroom isn’t a space in which I’m meant to focus on exhibiting mastery, but rather on modeling a process of inquiry with all its questions and doubts. Perhaps teaching—and by extension in the context of this chapter, all the forms of reading that we undertake with others—is best imagined as a collective process, in which I might set out a course and create some interactions and provide some key points of direction, but then must step aside, allowing the students with whom I’m working and the texts that we’re exploring to lead the way. Perhaps understanding myself not as the one who has to have all the answers, but instead as the one who can ask a few key questions, might shift the emphasis in the classroom—and in all of the reading practices in which I engage—from mastery to connection.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In the case of this chapter, I nonetheless (and I suppose at this point obviously) pressed forward with drafting, despite my urge to stop and read all the things, trying as in the classroom to keep myself focused on the potential for creating new forms of connection grounded in generosity. My hope is to encourage scholars—not least, myself—to revisit and revalue not just our own reading practices but those of our students, those we encounter regularly in the collective space of the classroom, and those of readers outside the academy, and to think about what we might learn from them. This reconsideration and even potential embrace of ways of reading and engaging through texts that focus just a bit less on mastery and more on connection may have benefits for our engagements with our students, encouraging us to think about the ways we instruct and develop life-long amateur as well as future professional readers and learners. But there might be benefits for our scholarly work as well, affecting both the ways we think about ourselves in relationship to the acts of reading and teaching and the ways we model our work for others who care deeply about reading but do not understand why we do it the way we do.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 That puzzling obstacle in encouraging myself to write this chapter, however—the fact that even now there remain too many things related to this topic that I have yet to read—leads me to wonder whether there is something in the professional relationship between reading and writing (including those anxieties about beginning to write too soon, before one has read all the things) that might be improved by understanding the reading process itself—or the process of inquiry as engaged in across our fields—as more dialogic, more relaxed, more pleasurable. If I felt, as a scholar, a bit less of a need to demonstrate my mastery, my competitiveness, if I were able to deal with being a little bit wrong right now, and to embrace the learning that might get done in the process, might I find my way toward a more generous mode of engaging not just with the writers that I study, or the readers I write for, but with myself in the process of this work? How might an approach to reading that begins from a position of openness, of learning, of listening, help provide a clearer recognition of the inevitably provisional nature of the sentences I set down here, enabling me to produce them with a little less fear?
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Writing is part of a communications circuit, of course, that both begins and ends with reading: I read things about which I write, so that others might read and perhaps even write about them in turn. It’s only in the closing of that loop, in the reading, that the significance of any given piece of writing emerges. However well I write, the meaning of what I produce will ultimately be determined though its interactions with its readers. And of course the readers of most scholarly writing are other scholars, whose social, cultural, and educational backgrounds lead them to bring a particular set of methods, expectations, and purposes to the reading process. Any academic writer works—or should work—with that audience in mind. The result, however, is that academic writing is overwhelmingly (if not always, and not intentionally) produced not just for but about scholars. This peculiarity may be most highly visible in literary criticism; any sufficiently scholarly analysis of a novel, for instance, is not about the ways that readers-in-general read that text, but rather how academic readers read it. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that general-interest readers fail to engage with our analyses: by and large, they are not only not written for them; they are also not about them. With some notable exceptions, academic literary criticism does not reflect or explore the ways that mainstream readers read, or the reasons they care about the thing being analyzed. Sociologist Elizabeth Long argues, drawing on her years-long study of book clubs and their practices, that members of reading groups and other mainstream readers often understand books as “equipment for living,” in Kenneth Burke’s famous phrase; this understanding leads them to focus on the connection between what they read and their own lives, with the result that they often find scholarly practices of literary criticism irrelevant. Long goes on to suggest that scholars err in assuming that “their readings can stand for everyone else’s, or that there is a homology between literary quality and worthwhile reading experiences” (221). This may be a bit overstated; if anything, scholars write for and about scholars because they assume—and not without reason—that their peers define the limits of their audience. I’ll focus in the next chapter on the ways that scholarly work, and the audience for it, might be opened up if more of it were done in and with the public. That process, however, has to begin with a richer understanding of how and why mainstream readers connect with their interests, what reading does for readers in the broadest sense.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 This chapter draws more heavily on my own field, literary studies, than does the rest of the book. My hope, however, is that it might open its address to include readers of many different kinds, and of many different genres, both across and beyond the university. Reading is one of the crucial processes through which all of us—scholars, students, book club members, and casual readers—have the potential to come into a more generous relationship with the world. Through reading, we learn not only to understand ourselves but also to understand others, both in relation to and in their ineradicable difference from ourselves. And reading together is at the heart of how the university operates, how we both teach and learn. But that teaching and learning requires that we scholars not only share the materials of our fields and our interpretations of them with those around us, but that we more generously open ourselves to admit the ways that others read as well. It is not just in the experience of authors or characters that we can learn to appreciate difference through reading, but also in the experience of other readers reading. All of us—professional and lay readers alike—will benefit from thinking a bit more collaboratively, and a bit less competitively, about how others read, and why they read that way. And it might make us all a bit more sensitive to the possibilities and nuances embedded in reading itself, as we experience a text from multiple perspectives, understanding the multiple ways that things can be read and the potential impacts those readings can have.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If scholars hope to promote a vision of scholarly work, even at its most critical, as being rooted in and working toward the public good, we need to find ways to engage broader publics with that work. We could do worse than beginning by revisiting the practice of reading itself, seeking a new understanding not solely of how scholars read, or for that matter how general-interest readers read, but why all of us read.
Is there a way to come back to the “public literary criticism” idea that you floated a while back in this segment somewhere? Because I think you’re starting to sketch out what it would look like.
Oh, of course! I should have made that connection more clear.
This is a very meta chapter in a very good way.