On Reading Critically

In my last post, “In Defense of Good Television,” I believe I didn’t clarify a point integral to my argument. This oversight prompted the following comment from 1 in Washington, DC:

In Ulysses, James Joyce claims that he has left so many literary twists and turns that readers will be engrossed looking for them for the next century. Do you suggest that the reader simply gloss over the details and hope to gain a superficial understanding of the text? And that if he is to recognize some motif, then this is purely luck and should not be further looked into? I certainly agree that one should avoid the “pointy headed commentary” that is so often associated with this, but shouldn’t some works require a modest amount of analysis?

Part of me is tempted to say that James Joyce presents a special case in that he is, arguably, one of the most nuanced and multi-layered, if convoluted (to the point of abstruseness) writers of the past hundred-something years; the fact of the matter is that, for better or worse, most writers do not release works of such conceptual and cultural density.  This is not to dismiss your question, 1 in Washington, it’s just that writers of Joyce’s intellectual caliber should be approached differently than those who didn’t write Gordian tomes.  Modern literature, characterized by a degree of playfulness, irony, and aspiring to be more real in its mimesis (as it sought, unlike 19th century realism, to describe what is and not what ought to be), i.e. that which was produced by Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Proust, Faulkner, Pound, et al. contains innumerable pithy bits upon which I enthusiastically encourage readers to chew but do not stubbornly force to swallow.

I believe that there can be two modes of reading these (except in the case of Joyce): one could read them just for the sake of entertainment and mull over their findings from these texts in peace, or one could go into a text, pencil and highlighter and index cards or (if you are so inclined) Moleskine at the ready, and vivisect it, get one’s hands dirty with its viscera. Mince and slice in search of the sinew of Truth. It is not my place to say how one should read a text, nor is it my place to say which mode yields the more “significant” experience, nor, dare I say, is it yours, 1 in D.C.. Might it be a little presumptuous to suggest that understanding yielded from one mode of reading is less superficial than another? Forgive the relativism (it is a bit po-mo, don’t you think?), but speaking from experience, each mode of reading yields its own insights; the first mode yielded for me juicy moments of introspection, the second left me in awe of the author in question, of his or her craftsmanship and ability to commentate; the first yielded something more tangible for me, but the latter yielded more lofty insights that seemed, while impressive and worthy of putting in a paper for an analytical literature course, somewhat contrived, and in seeming so, felt cheap, hackneyed: as if this has been thought before.

I excepted Joyce for a reason, he, at least in my personal experience with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, can only be read in this latter mode.

I do not suggest breezing through texts, I believe in taking time with them, getting what one can from them, delving as deep as one wants, rather than as deep as one ought, and moving on. There is no ought, objectively speaking. There is thus no gage of what “a modest amount of analysis” is; it varies from reader to reader, and from one prescriptive I-can-read-closer-than-thou snob to another. I’m not saying that you, 1 in D.C., are one such snob. I’m just sayin’.

Ultimately, this touches at a larger issue: which is more valuable, a profound if self-involved understanding of one body of work or a broad-based knowledge of many? I’m partial to the cause of the amateur (in both the French and English meanings of the word), the dilettante.

I can sympathize with the specialist, but there is a danger of falling into the anti-historicist, decontextualized trap of New Criticism: a text is not a standalone island, it is part of an archipelago, its neighbors being those books coeval or stylistically similar to the one in question. They have birds, too: finches, but each with localized variation. I concede that I notice these variations, find them curious, mull them over, examine further to the extent I feel necessary, and move on. I might not write On the Origin of Species, but instead of focussing on the minutia, I’ll stick with the much-maligned “big picture.” I’m the cantankerous polymath of this over-extended metaphor; I’ll gladly pen The Selfish Gene instead. I won’t be the one-hit wonder.


One response to “On Reading Critically”

  1. […] way obligated to answer to it. This is the basis for my earlier posts On Thinking Critically and On Reading Critically. […]

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