Sunday, May 27, 2007

Reading what I don't Understand

I have to confess that I felt very pleasantly flattered by what JP Rangaswami wrote about my own writing over at confused of calcutta:

I agree with Stephen about many things; I disagree with Stephen about many things; and then there’s a large group of things I don’t even claim to understand as yet, and that doesn’t stop me reading what he writes.

I do not know if he recalls that, back in March, I wrote about "The Problem of Dealing with Difficult Texts;" but one of the points I was trying to make there is that we should never give up on those things that we "don't even claim to understand as yet," because the most important part of that phrase is the concluding "as yet!" JP made his comment in reaction to my post on "The Google Paradigm and its Discontents;" but one of the discontents that I did not address in that post is the problem of instant gratification (the unfortunate corollary of "Internet speed") that both Google and Wikipedia have cultivated into what is left of our reading skills and habits. The "as yet" effect does not kick in overnight. In my own life experiences there are time when it has taken years, only happening when triggered by some event that then tweaks my memory; and it is because my memory is not what it used to be that I have become so occupied with taking notes, not just by marking up what I read but also by transcribing those marks onto my "virtual 3 x 5 cards" in PowerPoint. What I have discovered is that it is just as important to mark passages that I do not "as yet" understand (out of some instinctive sense that they should not be neglected) as to make note of passages that pertain to any of my current writing projects. As I remarked in my earlier post, that act of transcription serves as my first step towards "as yet" understanding.

The important thing about JP's observation is that it reminds us that we should embrace difficult texts, rather than flee from them. I find this particularly important when I am on the road. Hegel and Derrida have accompanied me on long flights and jet-lagged nights in hotel rooms; and they are far better companions than the "business press" books, which usually can be read in less time than it takes to sit through a play by Tom Stoppard. Often my only concern is that I am traveling with so much stuff that I lack both the space and the strength to deal with anything that is physically too heavy!

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