Sort of. Or, what makes one a reader? But first, a joke.
Two professors are at a resort sipping drinks on the patio. One says to the other, “have you read Marx?” The other replies, “Yes, I think it’s from these wicker chairs.”
Obviously there’s a difference between the utterances “have you read Marx?” and “have you red marks?” even if they sound identical when spoken. How one would answer one of the questions does not imply anything about how one would answer the other. (Understood in terms of the content of the ideas involved I mean. That one answered the first question in English makes it reasonable to assume that one would answer the second in English too, for instance. My point is that having read Marx and having red marks are not the same conditions.) What I wonder about as I’m typing this post, though is the different circumstances or ways in which one might answer the first question. And not really the first question about Marx but as a type of question.
In my second year or so of high school I decided to try and read books I felt like I should read, books that were older and had some cultural weight to them. I read the abridged version of Les Miserables, for instance. I liked that book a lot. I didn’t realize I was reading a shortened version of it until someone asked which one I was reading. I thought they meant it was a trilogy. Because the book made sense to me I assumed I was reading the first book. After they clarified the error I remember feeling as if I wasn’t really reading Les Mis, in the sense that when I was done I would not be able to say “I have read Lez Mizzerubbles” and have that be true.
I have read Marx (and red marks, for that matter). I have read Marx in the sense of “I am someone who has read some writings by Marx.” This makes me someone who is a reader of Marx in the same sense. I have not read Marx and I am not a reader of Marx in the sense of someone who has read all of Marx or who has taken the insights Marx has to offer such that I no longer have any reason to read Marx or in any other way being someone who is done reading Marx (except in the very uninteresting sense in which anyone who closes a book and goes a bike ride is done reading that book until they begin to read it again). One could argue of course that no one is every really done reading anything, in the sense that it is always possible to gain new insights by reading a work again. In this line of thought, one has read or is a reader in the sense of being someone who engages with a work or a writer.
There’s another sense of “have you read,” more along the lines of being done with a work. “Have you read Lacan/Habermas/whomever?” is partly a question along the lines of “do we have this book/line of thought in common?” seeking to establish first similar reading lists and perhaps also orientations (as in, do you agree with it or not, what are your criticisms, etc). This question can also be a suggestion and is often followed by a suggestion – “you should read” or “you need to read” the author or work in question. In that case the idea is that the author or work in question has something which will benefit the reader, like an argument elegantly made which can be used in other contexts. This idea is inarguably true, in the sense that works do offer things to readers.
On the other hand, the “you need to read” variant can function in some negative ways. It can be a bit of one-upsmanship or an appeal to authority. I’ve encountered this a ton in university classes within the theoretical humanities. I won’t deal with this here.
It can also involve a mistake along the lines “if you had read that book you wouldn’t think what you currently do.” Now, statements along the lines of “people who have read such-and-such book are less likely to think some way about the topic of this book” or “such-and-such book is likely to change the minds of its readers” are certainly reasonable, but they also involve probability. I’m sure that no one or almost no one really believes anything like “it would be literally impossible that people with that belief could have read and understood this book.” People are capable of not being moved by sound arguments, for one thing. (This reminds me of a disagreement I had with Colin about a Lewis Carroll dialog that I like very much called What the Tortoise Said to Achilles. I think that dialog is one of the funniest bits of philosophy there is.) There is I think however a sort of intuition or gut feeling which can be approximated in words by something like “I can’t believe …”. I think people have this feeling about other people all the time, including about the relationships between books read and ideas held. I know I do. That’s a reasonable feeling, but makes for a poor argument.
Another mistake that can happen here, also I think more of a gut feeling than a clearly stated belief, is the idea that only this book or author can provide some insight. Let’s say books and ideas are locations and that reading and thinking is a type of traveling or moving in space between locations. The mistake I mentioned a moment ago is something like a mistake along the lines of “you’ve been to Chicago? then you must have seen Lake Michigan!” There’s a second mistake possible, along the lines of “you’ve seen Lake Michigan? then you must have been to Chicago!” That is, just as one can read a book and not go where others might expect from that book one can also get to some conclusion by a route other than that which others have taken. While ideas are related to works and vocabularies, ideas can also at least some of the time be translated into other vocabularies and works. (I feel like a lot of the insights that some friends of mine say they get from Deleuze are similar to things I got from reading Rorty, for instance.)
The part of the “you need to read this book” thing that I had in mind that made me want to write this post has to do with what it means to read the book or writer, in the sense of what counts as reading the book or writer. If I’ve read the short section from the early part of volume 1 of Capital on commodity fetishism I have in one sense read Marx. I have no sense of much that’s important that Marx wrote and thought, however. In my experience there’s frequently a bit of obscuring that people do between “I have read” in the sense of “I’ve read some of” and “I have read enough of”, according to some standard which I’ll leave undefined for now. I have read Lacan, but I have not read Lacan in anything like the second sense of “I have read” mentioned in the previous sentence. (I think I’ve only read his essay on logical time.)
How well does one have to read something in order to have read it? If I read the Phenomenology of Spirit to and from work on a loud and crowded city bus where I’m only partly paying attention, have I read the Phenomenology of Spirit? I think the answer has to depend on the context, and the most honest answer would probably be something along the lines of “not really” or “well, yes and no.”
How well does on have to retain something to have read it? I’ve read a fair amount of Hume, I think at least for a non-specialist, and the occasional secondary work, and I’m pretty sure I understood most of it. And I remember very little of it. (Likewise with Deleuze’s short book and essay on Hume.) I guess I could say I’ve read Hume, or read those books, but I think it’d be just as fair to say that in a sense I’ve not read him/them.
What about understanding? How much does one have to understand something to have read it? I’ve read Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic, in its entirety. I was in a reading group for about a year that met about once a week on that book. When I got done, I don’t think I understood any of it. Before that I was in a class on Hegel. I found him utterly impenetrable and incomprehensible much of the time. I started making myself just look at all the words. I would do the reading two or three times, the first time just looking at all the words and not trying to understand. The second time I would actually try to understand and I would take a bit of notes but I’d always end up mystified. Often that’s all I’d have time to do before class. On my third reading, often after class after the professor cleared some of it up and presented bits of different passages and so on, then I would get more of it. Not all of it. Have I read Hegel? I guess so. I’ve looked at a lot of his words, anyway.
What about skimming? I’ve recently(ish) been making a disciplinary move, from the theoretical humanities to history. Over the past year or so I’ve often read (certainly been assigned to read) about three books a week. I don’t feel like I’m a fast reader and the reading load has been exhausting. This is part of the decline in my posting on this blog. I used to read less and read more closely, and post on this blog to sort out the stuff I was reading pretty closely. (I also used to be doing stuff where it was more okay to focus on say 10-30 pages out of say 100-300, without giving a sense of the larger argument of the over all total of pages.) This reading load is also part of why me and reading have found our relationship a bit more rocky and have had to do a bit of therapy together.
I’ve not read every word of every book I’ve been assigned. I’ve had to figure out how to manage being responsible for a larger quantity of material than I’m able read every word of. Here’s a another bit of Carroll that illustrates how I used to read:
“The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin,
please your Majesty?’ he asked.
`Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, `and go on
till you come to the end: then stop.’”
I used to start at the beginning then plow onward looking at as many of the words as possible until I ran out of time. When I started reading introductions and conclusions first it was a very strange thing for me. Later I read some post (wish I could find it) about how to spent two hours on a book focusing mostly on the index. The recommended method was something along the lines of read the index in its entirety. Note the terms with the most references throughout the book and the most numbers of pages. Think about what sorts of terms these are (people, places, concepts, whatever). Read the bits of the book on those terms.
I remember the first time I read the intro and conclusion of a book then read the topic sentences of all the paragraphs in between. I think I finished the book in like two hours. It felt crazy, it felt like I’d been traveling at tremendously high speed (like the scenes in Coffee and Cigarettes when people talk about drinking coffee before bed then dreaming really fast. I should add, of course the effectiveness of this varies by the type of book and the type of demonstration one is required to give that one has read the book adequately). It was very exciting. It’s also not fun in the same way. I like to read slowly. I’m still in the habit of reading slowly. To me it feels like books I’ve read slowly, made notes on, and maybe written about, are the only books I’ve really read. Have I read those books I’ve skimmed? I’m not sure.
Ultimately I’m not totally concerned with whether I’ve read them or not. I am concerned that I don’t read well quickly and that I don’t skim well. I know who (or who give the appearance that they are people who) skim very effectively. They get a grasp on the main points of books, the over all arguments and data and significance – their skeletal systems and major organs, so to speak – by skimming judiciously and making notes. I don’t feel good at that at all. I think I skim slowly (I find it very tiring to read that way) and I retain little. In order to up my effectiveness at reading well when reading faster and reading less (in the sense of looking at a lower proportion of the words), I’ve decided to do that more often. I’ve chosen books I wouldn’t otherwise have read, and set up a page to keep track of them. (Haven’t actually typed up my notes yet, though.)