Reading Without Distance

The other day a colleague of mine refused to advise an undergraduate thesis that was partly about Hegel. The reason? “Because Hegel was a racist.” Well yes, and most Europeans who lived between 1770 and 1830 — even the ones who campaigned against the slave trade and recognized the dignity of Asians, Africans, and Native Americans — had no less racist ideas knocking around their brains and writing-desks. The question is whether there was anything else in there. And Hegel, whose detractor I am proud to be every day, had a lot going on.

It’s just one data-point, just one senior professor at a top university refusing to help a student understand one canonical philosopher, but how typical!

Typical of what?

Professors of literature don’t like to read books. That is the melancholy conclusion to be derived from several of the latest trends in theory, which amount to devices for avoiding the book-reading that is the actual experimental basis of our criticism and analysis. Computer reading and the use of summaries (or translations); studies that slot authors into race and gender categories as a preliminary to determining their importance; postcolonial naming and shaming — all give us ways of handling books by means other than reading, whether it is a matter of delegating an algorithm to pluck out their word-frequencies or pontificating on them by referring to the adjectives attached to their authors, in other words, by relying on gossip. 

I like to read books. I am fascinated by them. Just as there are crate-diggers who will give every scratched LP its chance, however obtuse or cheesy the album-cover looks (the weirder the better!), so I’m willing to open any book and read at least a few pages in order to hear out the author’s claim on the world’s attention. The best service a book can render me is to challenge my preconceptions. I don’t like to push them away with an excuse in the style of “Oh, that’s Southern Gothic. I don’t do Southern Gothic.” I may read a few pages and arrive at a provisional judgment, “Aha, two parts Anne Rice and one part Flannery O’Connor, but the ingredients aren’t well-mixed,” and put it aside for someone else. But at least I give the book its chance.

I also try to be aware of what I don’t know: the dark side of the moon, the submerged part of the iceberg, the part of the joke that went over my head. There’s my ethic of reading. It doesn’t start with a preconception that I am ethical and set the standards. It starts from a readiness to find out what others have to say for themselves. It being unlikely for me to approach literature with an attitude of mastery, the best I can manage is an attitude of curiosity and the energy to carry it forward. 

But, someone will say, isn’t life limited and the number of books to be read practically unlimited? Well, of course, I may speak as if every book has a right to someone’s attention but that doesn’t mean it has an equal claim on mine. It’s probably best that I don’t live in a huge used bookstore. I pursue certain kinds of excitement and avoid certain kinds of dullness. Taste, or preferences, lead me to drop some books after a glance and to put some on the pile for intensive scrutiny. Experience makes me sensitive to certain signals that ping my likes and dislikes. Epistemologically speaking, a lot of books have nothing new to say to the person who has already had a certain kind of literary experience, so conformation to an existing category is a sign that the book belongs on the discard pile. But discordant signals that imply a different relationship to that category may keep alive an interest in the book. Hasty dismissal is as much to be avoided as the repetition of tautological banalities.  

If the message of the “no reading required” schools is that you don’t actually have to read a book in order to say acceptable things about it, the thought that directs my activity is that we don’t know what literature is, in an empirical way, yet; at best we have some intuitions that can be applied inductively, but on condition that they not hinder us from doing the empirical labor. And enjoying it, if we are so set up. If you don’t enjoy reading and discovering new books, you should probably find another line of work, though the absence of actual performance standards makes this profession a tempting one for the effort-adverse.