Back in the days when Pluto was a planet and skinny jeans were not yet a diabolical spark in some sadist’s eye, I was a literature major at American University, and I had a great advisor. I remember visiting his office hours a lot, toting along a tear-stained draft of some paper I had absolutely no business writing, like a ten-page argument about the entire idea of Victorian authorship.
“Something isn’t working at the top of page two,” I said one morning, suppressing the familiar swell of writing-induced panic. “But I don’t know what it is.”
I was surprised to find my advisor was pretty enthusiastic about my ignorance. Knowing where a problem is, he explained –– knowing that a problem exists –– is important, and something that set me apart. Many wouldn’t sense the problem at all, or wouldn’t recognize it even if he pointed it out to them. The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing, right? The internet tells me Socrates said that. (Of course, everyone knows you shouldn’t trust the internet.) Apparently sensing the problem, even if I didn’t know how to solve it, meant I should go to graduate school.
At the time I found my newly discovered excellence at identifying my own mediocrity exciting. Look at me, knowing I don’t know things! I can find things I don’t know all day! Little did I know that academia, from graduate school forward, would be rife with opportunities to feel my ignorance like an elevator plunge in my gut. I was about to embark on a career of locating problems without ready answers, and in the coming years it would be much harder to admit gaps in my knowledge to mentors and colleagues.
One of the things I wouldn’t know how to do upon arriving on Rice University’s campus for year one of grad school: how to read. A problem for an English PhD.
I knew how to identify words on a page. I knew, for the most part, how sentences work. But there are ways of reading in graduate school (and beyond) that no one teaches you (in my experience), and not knowing these particular ways of reading can make your life super miserable. In particular, I did not know:
- how to “read,” that perfect balance of skimming and deep engagement that provides you with the primary points of a text, a few salient examples, and the ability to participate in a conversation without saying something completely ridiculous — perhaps the most important way of reading in graduate school *
- how to read, without panicking, when you have 39048382 pages to read
- how to read in different ways for a seminar discussion, for comprehensive exams, for a particular writing project, and for enough information to say “Derrida” aloud in a conference presentation with only a barely-detectible eye twitch
- how to read a book you really hate and enter a seminar room without throwing it, dramatically, through the window or into the garbage can
- how to read a book you really love and enter a seminar room without a cake decorated in the author’s likeness, surrounded with cartoon hearts, ready to wet-willie anyone who says anything approaching negative about this work of genius
- how to read, and keep reading, when you have no idea what this shit means
I’ve been dealing with that last one for a day or two now. Happily, years of academic success in spite of –– because of? –– not knowing things has made me much more comfortable with my ignorance, just like driving around with a stunted sense of direction has made me completely cool being hopelessly lost. But this week, as I continued my (foolish) attempt to read everything ever published on nonsense, I began the first chapter of Susan Stewart’s Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature, and it didn’t go so well. A sample of my inner monologue as I read:
I’m going to read this! It will solve all of the problems in my Lord Alfred Douglas essay.
Okay. Not all of the problems. Some of them, though.
Should I put in a load of laundry?
Oh that’s smart. I should write that down. (Writes it down.)
I should write that down. (Writes it down.)
I should write that down. (Writes it down.)
Why am I writing everything down? Is it because I understand it, or because I don’t?
Hey! Some words I know! I AM A GENIUS.
Okay now we’re talking about isomorphism, and I don’t feel like looking that up.
Ha! Isomorphism has disappeared for awhile. I’m good.
(Looks in office candy jar.) I wonder what a funnel cake Dum-Dum lollipop tastes like?
Okay. This bit about nonsense and gaps in our systems of knowledge belongs in my essay.
Damn it. Isomorphism is back. Maybe the footnote will help.
The footnote does not help.
Maybe I can stop here. Can I stop here?
Okay no because apparently what I really need is in Chapter Four.
A funnel cake Dum-Dum lollipop does not taste good.
Should I even be reading this? Why am I reading things instead of writing things?
(I obsess over the fact that I should be writing while reading three pages, all of which I have to go back and reread.)
Here’s the thing. I really like Susan Stewart’s work. Her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, and the Collection is beautiful and one of only two books of theory I recommend to non-English-faculty people. (The other is The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.) When reading On Longing, I also have moments of “wha?” and “who now?” and “come whatsit?” –– admittedly, not as many, but they’re there. Why is it bugging me so much that I don’t understand everything in this particular book?
I think it’s context. I want to understand Stewart’s Nonsense immediately, because I’m not making the progress I’d hoped to make during my sabbatical on what I am affectionately calling my “beastie nonsense paper.” I want to understand this book yesterday, or three months ago, or last year. Instead, dammit, reading this book is suggesting that I am not the expert on nonsense theory that I feel I need to be in order to write the next paragraph, the next sentence, the next word of my draft, and suddenly a sort of intellectual dysmorphia kicks in. What is in truth a small gap in my knowledge yawns wide, an untraversable abyss. Edward Lear stands on its far side, laughing at me. **
In light of all this nonsense (and to maintain the integrity of my windows, which would not survive the hard edges of a hurled library book), I’m working on embracing partial knowledge and imperfect understanding. If I calmly reflect on the books I’ve read, those I feel I comprehend –– perhaps while enjoying a peach-mango Dum-Dum lollipop, a safer choice –– I remember that my grasp of a book, simple or complex, isn’t static. It shifts and expands (and sometimes ebbs and fades, as Pierre Bayard would argue). I can read a book, even write about it, even publish on it, and then realize something new about it a few months or years later. A piece of it that was once incomprehensible will find a niche in my brain, because the landscape of my understanding will have changed.
Or, to put it more succinctly while procrastinating on social media (as I do):
Happy reading, friends!
* One of my professors in graduate school told a hilarious but harrowing tale of her in-class presentation on Dickens’s Bleak House. She had not read the entire novel but had read, she surmised, enough to handle this assignment. And then a fellow student asked her about Krook’s spontaneous combustion, which she thought was a joke. It was not. Some texts contain things you simply cannot predict, even after a thorough skim.
** Edward Lear would never laugh at me. Edward Lear only laughs with me.