Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reading in Parts: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing with Partial Knowledge

I bought a copy of More Baths Less Talking (2012), the latest volume of a selection of Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've been Reading" columns for The Believer for someone else and read the entire book over a short train ride. Hornby begins each column with a list of "Books Bought" and then a list of "Books Read" over the last month. There was rarely much overlap. I wonder if academics should do the same?

We could include in the first list books bought, checked out of the library, ordered through inter-library loan; articles downloaded, printed. I suppose journals subscribed to wouldn't count because then the "unread" would be too overwhelming. In the second list we would list books and articles actually read during the same period (those purchased or downloaded years ago, those re-read, etc.). Perhaps there needs to be a third list, books/articles used/cited/quoted in our own work, but not actually read much beyond the cite/quote for which we dutifully provide a reference. The literature review can seem overwhelming because of the many related works out there for any historiographical problem. We seem to find more and more works that fall within Francis Bacon's category, "to be read only in parts."

It turns out, that Bacon's era was quite familiar with the sense of being overwhelmed with "the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion" (Adrien Baillet, 1685, trans.). Ann Blair (the source of the two quotes above) shows how some early modern writers attempted to manage information by injunctions to read selectively in her survey of their various note-taking and categorization schemes (“Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload Ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1, January 2003: 11-28). And Thomas N. Corns indicates how the early modern writers and publishers offered their own version of random access now more ubiquitously found in the hypertext link (“The Early Modern Search Engine: Indices, Title Pages, Marginalia and Contents”, in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge technology in the first age of print, ed. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, London: Routledge, 2000, 95-105).

Just as early modern readers have been offered a way out, so too have we. I have not read Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury, 2009), but I am going to discuss its main point. Perhaps I feel empowered to do so because I have read and recommend Jacob Halford’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” a post in Early Modern Dialogues (15 July 2010). Halford, and, I presume, Bayard, notes that “[t]his is a skill I think that is valuable for anyone who works with lots of books.” It is valuable in thinking about research, in working in classrooms and seminars on either side of the desk. Halford/Bayard lists five points that explain the non-reading method. I offer my, even briefer reading of these points (as shared with my graduate students).
  1. Remember that most people can’t remember most of what they have read.” From this my take-away is to go with what you have read/do know, and in what you are most interested. The point is not that you will never have to read again (what a sad life), but you don’t need to read everything, all of a book, even all of a chapter, to get something out of it. If you remember something about a book, that might put you at the forefront of your audience/group. It certainly puts you in the discussion.
  2. Know the Book’s Location.” Is it more difficult when the modern reader does not have Library of Congress classification memorized and finds a source through a random search online? Perhaps. But the injunction to “situat[e] the text amongst [certain] books” is still vital. Not just in relation to a debate, a dialog, or a wikipedia-type subject, but physically/geographically (examples: this is a long, long novel, and, thus, almost certainly a product of the 19th-century three-decker genre; this is a rare religious text found mainly in New England seminaries and colleges). All this knowledge allows you to state with confidence, “books like this tend to...."
  3. Know what others have said about the book.” And, even better, be able to situate those who have reviewed or commented about the book. You now can speak knowledgeably about the debates in which the book does or does not engage.
  4. Know the basic content.” Oh, dear, you are thinking, why not just read the book? For one, if you are reading the book without doing these steps, you are unlikely to remember much because you have not created a place for your memories of reading it. Halford/Bayard suggests looking at the table of contents (TOC). In addition to the TOC, I’d suggest a glance at the index and paratext (lists of illustrations, prologue, etc.). Does the author state why s/he is writing? Does s/he state when and where the problem first arose? Does s/he thank specific people that you can situate themselves?
  5. Don’t be ashamed.” Here we are in the realm of confident bluffing. But what about truth? A confident statement based on nothing more than a hunch (and informed hunch, based on nos. 1-4 above) is an important step in constructing a hypothesis in early stages in research, or in initiating dialog with fellow students/professors/researchers. Of course, you are using it to facilitate inquiry, not holding it against all comers. If presented with additional information (Dickens did not state X; the war actually caused Y), you must be willing to modify your position.
After a while (as I advise my students), books fit more easily into patterns. One should be able to construct a mental picture of a book from the information you do have. Halford/Bayard gives the interesting example of Jorge Luis Borges, who once said writing a long book that can be summed up in a few minutes is counter-productive and tedious. It is better “to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.” Next time you need to write a longish work, imagine it is already written, think about what it really says, and then write/imagine a commentary on that imaginary work. You’ll probably be farther along to what is really interesting/vital. And then your work is more likely to end up on our personal version of Hornby's second list.

2 comments: said...

I woulod add one more catergory and that is books started , put down read something else, pick book up again and only then read it to the end

balkanization said...

Indeed! Hornby sometimes follows his "Books Read" listings by "(part)". If it was books started and you mean to get back to them someday, I think I would qualify for league standing.


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