Day: October 28, 2009

how to become a less anxious reader

Reflecting on my last post, I realise that reading with slow, painstaking care may not always be a virtue. (It certainly doesn’t feel like a virtue when you’ve got a stack of reading to knock over before class!)

And it would probably just be paralysing to get bogged down in every puzzling detail or surprising expression that some writers come up with. I’m thinking particularly of certain fiction authors — James Joyce and Umberto Eco spring to mind — and philosophers — the chief culprits in my experience would be Wittgenstein and Derrida.

Which brings me to another piece of advice a different English Literature lecturer once gave me: just relax.

This really is the key to becoming a less anxious reader. Sometimes it’s best just to let the prose wash over you. Or, less poetically, to stumble ahead in the fog desperately hoping it’ll clear up before you do yourself too much damage.


And it’s really true. You can’t read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or On Certainty by stopping whenever you hit something perplexing or unexplained. Really. You can’t. (I’ve tried.)

Instead, you’ve got to trust that things will become clearer, that the same theme will reappear again (and again and again), that a different metaphor might break the insight open for you more effectively.

What’s more, this is as much a moral issue as learning to notice what you hadn’t noticed you’d noticed.

I suspect that it’s those readers who hammer at a text with utter desperation — trying to force it to yield up its meaning — who are at the greatest risk of doing violence to the text by refusing to allow it its (sometimes infuriating) otherness