Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reading Strategies

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on Ray Monk's valuable little "handbook," How to Read Wittgenstein. This is one of a series of "how to read" texts that was apparently the brain child of Simon Critchley, which struck me as a sort of latter-day rethinking of the Great Books Program, particularly as implemented at the University of Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century through the efforts of scholars such as Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. This matured into a grander vision of the core curriculum of "great books of the Western world" being read not only by undergraduates but also by neighborhood reading groups, for which Adler prepared a plan for covering the authors he had selected over the course of a year. He also wrote a companion volume helpfully entitled How to Read a Book to try to convey the message that reading these texts was not just a matter of jumping in at the beginning and plowing page-by-page through to the end.

When I was involved with a project called "Productive Reading," I put a fair amount of time into exploring the books Adler had selected as the canon for his curriculum, along with an elaborate system of indexing the complete set, which he called the Syntopicon. I also revisited How to Read a Book in the revised and updated edition for which Charles van Doren served as Adler's coauthor. (While browsing Amazon.com, I discovered that Blackstone Audio recently released an "Audible Audio Edition" of this book, read in its entirety by Edward Holland. This seems to carry the ironic connotation that you do not actually have to read a physical book to learn how to read books, thus freeing you from an "endless loop" situation!) After having been immersed in this activity of reading about reading for several months, I saw an announcement of Critchley's series and found it appropriate to investigate the possibility of an alternative school of thought and/or strategy. I selected Monk's volume because I figured it would be good for an "acid test."

At this point I should note that my personal habits probably would have aggravated both Adler and Critchley. I have long lived by the inclination to jump, feet first, into any new text, whatever reputation that text may have for being challenging. This may be because I tend to be as interested in style as I am in content, which has always made be a bit cool towards Adler's quest for getting to the content most efficiently without necessarily dwelling on style. Indeed, I have often wondered impishly whether or not Adler had encountered any of Slavoj Žižek's texts prior to his own death in 2001 and what impact those texts would have had on his preoccupation with efficient reading! For that matter, even before I had discovered Žižek, I had similar thoughts about Marcel Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past is included in the reading list of How to Read a Book provided in the first appendix.

My own strategy has tended to be one of thrashing around in the midst of total immersion, usually taking notes of passages that catch my attention, even if I do not fully understand their text. While a lot of my colleagues have seen this as an opportunity to provide electronic books with support for underlining and/or highlighting portions of the pages being read, this for me has been only half (if that much) of my strategy. These days I copy anything I mark, usually onto PowerPoint slides, which for me have become the moral equivalent of 3 x 5 cards. This process of copying often contributes to a level of understanding that had not yet been reached when the passage was first encountered. (I remember being told of a counterpoint instructor at the Curtis Institute of Music, whose name I have long forgotten, who made his students write out their own copies of Palestrina, presumably under the assumption that one cannot copy particularly effectively without first having done some rudimentary parsing of what one is copying.) I copy into a digital domain, because I want to be able to search it; and I want to search because I know I will want to come back to it as a result of further reading I plan to do.

None of this fits in very well with Critchley's agenda, but I still found Monk's Wittgenstein handbook to be useful. Most importantly, Monk made me more aware of the need to seek out a structural architecture in the text even when that architecture was not explicitly delineated by the author. Indeed, it took Monk to get me to realize that the elaborate system of numbering each section of the Tractatus reflected a hierarchical structure. One could then reconstruct the hierarchy from the numbers and read the book "top-down," rather than from beginning to end. As a result I now often take notes pertaining to such architecture in other texts (particularly Plato), which then help me to properly sort the other notes I am taking. The other valuable element in reading Monk was the way in which he tried to establish a context for each text he considered (which meant that he could draw upon his own biography of Wittgenstein).

It seems to me that this question of context is important in establishing how you approach an author, particularly one whose texts are challenging for one reason or another. Thus, my recent attempt to compare Friedrich Nietzsche with Slavoj Žižek emerged from challenges encountered in reading both authors; and, while my hypothesis that these two authors were "unified" by the rhetoric of polemic may have been overly reductive, it set an initial contextual frame of reference in place. I have been reading more Nietzsche since then, which has given me an opportunity to tune up his piece of that frame of reference. Needless to say, much of that tuning has to do with what the polemic is attacking, rather than the rhetorical device itself; and it is interesting to see the extent to which his targets are other texts of philosophy, the most notorious of which, as I have already observed, are those of Plato.

However, when we get beyond rhetoric to more substantive argument, I have come away with the impression that the skills that Nietzsche exercises have less to do with philosophy and more to do with two other disciplines that clearly occupied much of his attention. One is philology, and we see that in play when he turns to Horace as a stick for beating Plato, even if most readers would never think of Horace as a philosopher. Nevertheless, this approach is very dear to me, partly because I have used it myself on many occasions. It is the idea that you cannot get at semantics without first "unpacking" the sign structures through which meaning is conveyed, particularly when the act of unpacking reveals as much about the thinker as it does about the thoughts being expressed through the text. There is thus an implicit assumption that words always "know more than they say," so to speak; and I relish an author who sees the value in teasing out such wordplay.

Nietzsche's other discipline is the more intriguing. It is psychology; and it is intriguing because, as an actual discipline, psychology was still very much in its infancy when Nietzsche was trying to get his own head around it. There are passages that reveal an almost uncanny intuition for where the study of psychology would eventually lead, even if Nietzsche himself lacked any clear sense of the path that would be followed. Consider, for example, his hyperbolic outburst about atomism in "Twilight of the Idols" (in Walter Kaufmann's translation):

The thing itself, to say it once more, the concept of thing is a mere reflex of the faith in the ego as cause. And even your atom, my dear mechanists and physicists—how much error, how much rudimentary psychology is still residual in your atom! Not to mention the "thing-in-itself," the horrendum pudendum of the metaphysicians! And made the very measure of reality! And called God!

This idea that "faith in the ego as cause" can go so far as to engender "the concept of thing" can be read, from our contemporary point of view, as the first suggestion that reality itself is psychologically constructed, a perspective that would have to wait about a century after Nietzsche's death before being considered as a feasible hypothesis.

Perhaps this strategy on my part reflects one way in which I actually agree with Adler. This is Adler's conviction that we should approach every text we read as if we are entering into a conversation with the author. However, while Adler tended to think in terms of the reader standing on the author's platform to conduct that conversation, it makes just as much sense (since the actual conversation is totally imaginary) for the author to be brought to the reader's contemporary platform. In Nietzsche's case this is a matter of reading his speculations in light of what we now know about human psychology and that still-murky area of consciousness itself. Any such conversation that ensues is likely to be a wild one that may even be well advanced by Nietzsche's preference for hyperbole; but it makes for an invigorating exercise, particularly if one spends much of one's time investigating the academic literature of far more "serious" scientists!

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