You Oughta Know: Disciplines of Reading

I always feel a little ill when I hear someone spout that most tired of clichés: “everything in my life up to this point has been in preparation for ______.”  Everyone from USF’s new provost, sled-dogging morticians, and even cartoon characters have somehow managed to karaoke to this old chestnut without cracking a smile.  There is nothing profound about beating this dead horse because everything everyone has done up to any particular point is preparation for that moment.  To deploy a favorite once profound quote–before the original Conan movie rendered it a bumper sticker–Nietzsche said “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” and it’s true.  Today is always tomorrow’s dress rehearsal.

Many of my fellow MAPH students’ conversations have turned toward the topic of preparation.  Were you ready for the reading load?  Is she prepared to choose her first quarters’ worth of classes?   Can I handle the rigors of U of C’s academic writing expectations?  These questions’ answers depend–to a certain degree–on the way that MAPHers were trained by their undergraduate schools–but also how much time and effort they put into developing the skills necessary to negotiate graduate work.

The following list of necessary academic skills was developed out of my reflections on my undergrad experience and my–admittedly–brief exposure to University of Chicago’s academic expectations, but I think it bears consideration if you are working toward a Bachelor’s now, considering a Master’s program, or even planning for a PhD candidacy.  So for about the next week I want to highlight one aspect per day of what a solid undergraduate program should be preparing you to do beginning with the basics and working toward more difficult and esoteric activities.  So without further introduction:

1. Disciplines of Reading: Reading for entertainment, reading for distance, & reading for argument.

Reading for distance.  The way one reads differs according to both the material one reads and the purposes that one reads toward. Reading Mark Z. Danieleski’s House of Leaves for a contemporary fiction literature class one might read for distance and get out of the experience something less than their professors had in mind.

“The book is hard to read.  It has strange fonts and pagination with a TON of footnotes.  I can’t follow what is going on because the narrator seems to be a junky at first, then he is talking about a movie–which he later says he can’t locate a copy of–and then he is in a house that is possessed?  This book is weird.”

You can blame modern educational practices with too many pages of assigned readings–often later discussed in class anyway–but most undergrads tend to read for distance.  The goal is to cover the pages assigned with a minimum of time invested and with the certain knowledge that they aren’t missing anything that won’t be covered in lecture later.  This is reading at its least productive.

Reading for entertainment has gotten a bad name, but that isn’t the point here.  Reading House of Leaves before going to bed is an act of escapism and entertainment.

Johnny Truant works in a tattoo parlor, lusts after stripper/client named Thumper, and gets a tip on a new apartment from his erstwhile friend Lude which leads him to discover Zampano’s trunk full of notes and an unfinished manuscript. The manuscript is an academic study of a film called The Navidson Record about a house that is bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Reading for entertainment focuses on the characters and narrative events while ignoring symbolism, allusion, caricature, irony, and other deeper structures in the text.  This is like reading a text the way people watch summer blockbusters: you understand the story, can retell the events, and recognize relationships between characters.  There is nothing wrong with reading for entertainment–I can’t do it anymore because I actually enjoy the authors symbolism, allusions, ironic twists more than I enjoy the plain narrative–but reading for entertainment is a great way to read a book.  However, it should not be confused with academic reading.

Reading for argument is a discipline.  One cannot simply wake up one day and do it.  Reading for argument is taking a text and answering the question “why did the author write it this way?”  Reading House of Leaves in order to review it for an academic journal is reading for argument.

The first level narrator is Johnny Truant.  True to his name his life is a placeholder devoid of ambition, purpose, and any other characteristics that might betray an identity.  Johnny’s discovery of Zampano’s manuscript is–not surprisingly–a passive event by which life serendipitously washes the blind man’s life work up onto the deserted beach of Johnny’s ambition.  The manuscript and the strange documentary at its center become an obsession for Truant and the second level’s narrator Zampano drags Truant from room to room with allusions to fictional books and references to imaginary events.

Reading on this level requires the ability to recognize themes and motifs, rhetorical figures, cultural allusions, narrative point of view and many other stylistic techniques, but more important than recognizing these authorial tools is the constant attempt to reconstruct why an author is doing what she is doing.  Throughout this post I have used the horror novel House of Leaves to create my examples–partly because people often think that fiction does not require reading for argument–but the goal is the same when reading a legal brief, a philosophical treatise, or a poem: why did the author put it just this way?

One could argue that reading for argument is like preparing to write an analytical exposition… and they would be right.  However, that doesn’t make it less enjoyable than reading for entertainment.  In fact, my experience has been that reading for argument gives me more to enjoy because the author’s little embellishments add spice and weight to the work. Some books, like some films, can bear more–or less–reading for argument.  I would have struggled to create the example of reading for argument above if I had used a Golden Book as my text.  However, nearly any book can be read for argument and better understood and enjoyed because of the effort.

Obviously, this is a quick summary and the topic deserves a more in depth treatment, but these distinctions between reading for distance, entertainment, and argument should be at least recognizable as mapping onto one’s undergraduate experience.  If reading for argument is new to you–or you have some caveat to add–leave comments at the bottom and I’ll be happy to discuss the topic further.  Next time: Nothing is necessary and everything is intentional.


4 comments on “You Oughta Know: Disciplines of Reading

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Good stuff. These sorts of distinctions should be explicitly presented to students during their undergraduate education, but sadly they often aren’t.

    I like to talk about reading for argument as constructing A Reading, partly because it seems (to me) that when I so read I fix or transfix the text, I starch the palimpsest such that reading the text in the future will always be a reading-through-the-lens-I’ve-established. Of course one can consciously attempt an alternative reading, but these — if you will — idealizations of the text don’t go away. At least that’s my experience. I mention it to add another item to your list in praise of reading for argument: in addition to providing a richer experience, it can make the text available to one in a way that reading for entertainment can’t (and, certainly, that reading for distance can’t), can make it ready-to-hand in memory as a specific thing, a tool.

    I eagerly await your next installment.

  2. maphman says:

    I couldn’t agree more! The distinction between “reading” and “a reading” is essential although this last week of writing analytic expositions on Freud have been interesting. To explain that cryptic remark allow me to appeal to what I think we both agree would be the creation of a competent reading: one which explains most fully–with as few internal tensions as possible–the text at hand while acknowledging that said reading is a lens controlled and conditioned by both our experience of the text and all the baggage we bring to it. Imagine my surprise when my preceptor basically argued that such a reading was an act of interpretation and philosophers ought to strive, instead, for a true reading–one unbiased by their own experience and embracing only the author’s pure meaning. If there is a course that will teach me THAT skill no amount of money would be too great. In the preceptor’s defense, I’m not sure he believes that such a reading is possible but was trying to impress upon us the need to strive toward it despite our inevitable failure.

  3. While it may not be appropriate for the MAPH I think there is a least one more type of reading which everyone should consider: reading for appropriation.

    I think it is this that professors are aiming at when they require memorization of text. A deep knowledge of the text that frees it from the page.

    Especially with poetry, reading for appropriation can help to create a more nuanced reading,… it is like letting the text speak to you instead of having to carry your eyes across the words.

    Like Robert said when we read carefully we create _a_ reading by necessity, reading for appropriation allows us to carry the force of that reading with us at all times.

    This is the kind of “reading” which influences the great preaching of Martin Luther King for example. While he often quoted from pages in the Bible, he and many in his tradition were and are so deeply entrenched in the language of the text that its imagery, cadences, and words are constantly alluded to.

    I suppose that is why it is dangerous to become overly familiar with a text (or lyric) with which you vehemently disagree, it can become part of you…

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