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Learning to Read

By Noah I. Dauber

Over the past few months, I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about reading and writing. I have been trying out what the proper attitude towards these things ought to be, though to be fair, I should admit that I was motivated by procrastination as much as curiosity. I had thought about these issues in a general way over the past couple of years, especially as a first-year, when literary theory seemed to be all the rage. It wasn't until beginning to write a thesis that questions of attitude and method became really engaging, however. I suppose that this shift is not too surprising. If you read and write all day, you'll start to think about reading and writing, and the best way of approaching these activities.

Generally, teachers suggest a mixture of humility and enthusiasm as the proper attitude towards learning. John Ruskin, a Victorian critic of society and art, wrote that we ought to be extremely careful when reading not to impose our own opinions on the material. Too many people tend to read their own feelings and beliefs into books. The result is that we end up learning a bit more about ourselves, but we never get to hear from the authors themselves. If we want to get at the real learning in the book, we ought to study each word's meaning precisely.

Some readers will balk at these suggestions. They will tell us that the author has long since dropped dead, that no amount of careful study of words will get us any closer to the author's original meaning and that we might as well cut our losses and learn about ourselves. Ruskin might respond that these folks are not only mistaken, but proud besides. They ought to know their places; they ought to read to hear what experts have to say.

This is the sort of thing that I was kicking around the back of my mind while writing my thesis. From time to time I would feel the need to read ethical teachings about scholarship. I looked up what the rabbis said about learning Torah. I read Ruskin on reading. I read Samuel Johnson's essay "On Scholarship." I found these to be real pick-me-ups, my version of chugging espressos and popping Vivarin. The whole thesis process tends to be "meta" as it is, focusing as much attention on the experience of research and writing as on the actual subject of the project.

Visiting graduate schools this past week or two has given me a slightly different perspective on this question of the correct attitude to bring to one's reading and writing. At the end of the thesis writing process, I was pretty convinced by Ruskin. I kept telling myself: "you real small, Kant real big." I tried to listen carefully to what Kant was saying. Being weak, I was often tempted to make up what I thought he was saying. It seemed to me that I had some interesting idea that someone might have said, but with Ruskin in mind, I tried to resist. This went on for a while, back and forth, until the thesis was due.

Obviously there is some aspect to this whole thing that is plain silliness. We ought to read what we read without illusions that our understanding is any better than it is. On the other hand, insofar as we want to be thoughtful about our lives--and reading and writing are part of our lives,--we ought to give it some thought.

Again, before touring graduate schools this week, I thought that Ruskin was the big winner. So, with Ruskin in mind, it took me by surprise that ambition kept popping up in my graduate school visits. Conversation after conversation suggested that it was important to have a little fire in your belly. It seems that if you are not sufficiently ambitious in graduate school, you are likely to bore yourself stiff. Choosing a topic that is well within your abilities seems like a sure recipe for a boring book. You will end up boring your professors, yourself, your family and even your friends.

There is probably a time to compromise, to admit to yourself and everyone you know that you are completely incapable of doing a decent job of the immense task that you have set yourself. But it seems that you have to dream big. I asked one professor what he thought of a particular favorite of mine, a real "baggy monster" of a book, weighing in at a nice 700 or so pages. "I admire its ambition," the professor said. He thought that maybe it was a bit windy as well, but that was okay by me. Graduate students warned me against worthless projects, suitable for swelling libraries only. But lately, since university presses have started to look at marketability of scholarly studies in addition to their scholarly quality, it is no easy task to get a book published at all. In the end, it seems to be another of those issues of moderation. Humility is well and good, but a bit of that "up-and-at-'em" aggression wouldn't hurt either.

Noah I. Dauber '98 is a special concentrator in Adams House.

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