Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Problem of Dealing with Difficult Texts

This is a problem I have had to deal with throughout my life (and I hope to be able to continue to deal with it for the remainder of that life). I remember that when I was very young (elementary school age), Omnibus devoted one of its programs to a dramatization of Homer's Iliad. My parents told me I would find it too difficult. They later gave me the Classics Comics version. from which I progressed to prose renderings of the text, picking up Hamilton's Mythology along the way. To this day I have no idea whether or not that Omnibus project actually used Homer's verse, but I have been fascinated with Christopher Logue's project to provide his own verse "accounts" of the books of the Iliad for BBC radio broadcasts. I suppose that, where anything as massive as the Iliad is concerned, it is good to go in with a relatively straightforward sense of the story (for which Classics Comics did not do a bad job) in order to be receptive to the devices of discourse.

When I was in junior high school, my father again invoked the "difficulty argument" against Bullfinch; but I checked it out of the library anyway. By this time Hamilton had given me the basic roadmap for the Greek myths; and, to this day, I never figured out why my father thought Bullfinch was difficult. It probably had something to do with the excursions he tacked on at the end of each story. At the time these did not register very much with me. When I returned to them in college, I did not think that much of them; and today, while I feel that Hamilton is still a valuable part of my library, I do not think there is a copy of Bullfinch in the house (whose shelf space has become rather limited).

By the time I was in high school I was getting hooked on mathematics and was fascinated when I discovered that there was such a thing as game theory. My father again hauled out the too-difficult argument. However, rather than telling me to do something else, he presented me with his copy of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, by von Neumann and Morgenstern. As I recall he said something to the effect that if I could get through any ten pages in the book, then I could think about learning more about game theory. I quickly discovered that there was a trick to doing this. The first 45 pages, presumably by Morgenstern, were all about economic theory and were thoroughly alien to me. After that, von Neumann took over and worked his way up to a set-theoretical definition of a game. Since I was part of the "new math" crowd and had no trouble with either the vocabulary or concepts of set theory, this was easy stuff.

I think that, to some extent, this strategy of going for the easy stuff ended up damaging my ability to dig into really heavy reading, even if it was also a survival tactic for dealing with the heavy loads of both undergraduate and graduate studies. As a result, I have to confess that it has only been over the last ten years that I have begun to give serious reflective reading the attention it deserves; and I can probably thank the "knowledge movement" for channeling that attention in so many directions, broadening from technology to philosophy, economics, social theory, cognitive theory, and literary theory (not that this list is inclusive). What has emerged is a whole new set of reading habits that I now seem to be able to engage regardless of the text involved.

I was a product of that how-to-study school of thought that encouraged marking up what I read. Since highlighting pens were not part of my culture, that meant underlining text and using the margins for notes. I still do that, but it now serves an additional purpose. What I had not appreciated for many years was the value of transcribing the products of my note-taking. Ironically, it took technology to bring me to this insight. Back in high school I was trained to take all my notes on 3 x 5 cards, and one day I realized that a PowerPoint slide could be treated as a 3 x 5 card on steroids. (I suppose that was the original HyperCard vision. However, I was never particularly seduced by HyperCard and did not give the technology much thought until Microsoft had swallowed all of its features into PowerPoint.)

This has had an interesting impact on both my reading and my note-taking. I still do a lot of underlining, but now I copy those underlined passages into PowerPoint files. I have a lot more respect for copying than I used to, in spite of many anecdotes I had encountered when I was younger. (A counterpoint teacher at Curtis used to have his students copy out Palestrina. Even Stravinsky once said that he never liked to employ copyists, because copying out the final score and parts was the time when his work really began to make sense to him.) I also continue to take notes in the margin and copy them out in conjunction with the passages they are annotating. If there is not enough room in the margin (often the case), I write my annotations on a separate sheet of paper (or, if they are really extended, write them into a Word file) and attach the paper to the reading matter; so I remember to include that stuff when preparing my PowerPoint file.

Since PowerPoint supports hyperlinks, I also now pay a lot more attention to connections. This attention was reinforced, in part, by Patrick Olivelle's introduction to the edition of the Upanishads that I picked up while on one of my business trips:

In the preceding survey we noted three areas of concern for the vedic thinkers: the ritual, the cosmic realities, and the human body/person. The ritual sphere includes formulas, prayers, and songs, as well as ritual actions and ceremonies. As we have seen, the vedic thinkers did not make a strict distinction between the gods and cosmic realities; so the cosmic sphere includes both. The central concern of all vedic thinkers, including the authors of the Upanishads, is to discover the connections that bind elements of these three spheres to each other.

I felt it was important to include what I felt were useful associative connections in my notes, and PowerPoint let me record those connections as hyperlinks. This, in turn, led to my often reading particularly difficult material with the computer close at hand, searching my existing notes for related material, using my own hyperlinks and the various search tools Microsoft provided. These days I have extended my searching to the Web (and, sometimes, with the assistance of A9, to other reading matter). As a result, the marginal notes I make on paper now include references to specific PowerPoint slides (now my working 3 x 5 cards) and serve as reminders of hyperlinks I need to install during the transcription process.

One other element has become a major part of my reading practice, particularly where those extended marginal notes are involved. This has its origin in an essay by Heinrich von Kleist entitled "On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking." I summarized this essay in my previous blog:

The basic thesis is that the thoughts we have "in our head" are, for the most part, vague and ill-formed; and it is only when we try to express them in words that they become concrete enough to be called ideas.

Most, if not all, of my reading serves to sort out all those "vague and ill-formed" thoughts in my head; and it is through the writing practices that accompany my reading that expression takes place. This happens as much when I am reading Logue or Proust as when I am reading Morgenstern (whom I now feel better equipped to read), Giddens, or Plato. It is happening even as I write this, which is why I call these writings my "Rehearsal Studio;" and I hope that these practices will continue to keep me fit as I continue to find my way through the world of ideas!

1 comment:

Reader Scott said...

I love philosophy and I have for a long time, so I'm used to reading complex texts. At first, I had to reread many passages over and over. Now, I'm usually a lot better.

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