On Reading Closely

...what's really exciting about reading, what makes me addicted to good essays and difficult ideas, is formation.

On Reading Closely

Over at diakena.com, there's "Life of the (Lonely) Mind," a powerful meditation on close-reading, community, and accomplishment. Reading for some of us isn't ultimately about knowing lots of facts. Or even stories. They're helpful, sure. Plenty of times I've stopped a book because arguments addressed at length didn't show a scrap of relevance. But what's really exciting about reading, what makes me addicted to good essays and difficult ideas, is formation. Someone has something they think is profound. They think it changed their perspective, their life. They're offering it to you, but in order to grasp it, you have to do the work. Maybe change yourself. @LiviaDiakena speaks to this directly: there is such a thing as "challenging yourself with a difficult book," as hard as that can be to believe. All of us know people who haven't read for years, if not decades. It doesn't make sense to criticize them, because what's the point? But this hesitancy creates an impasse. There's "nothing wrong with being unrigorous in one's reading and thinking," but not reading with rigor could lead to a "life of intellectual and moral stagnation, one in which this is as far as I get as a person."

I can't sit here and say I'm a better person than others because I read and explore ideas. That's crazy, and I wouldn't want to say such a thing. It isn't true. All the same, I'm a better version of myself because of close-reading. The moral imperative is deeply personal, but it is a moral imperative. Except when it isn't. There are well-read fascists, who fill themselves with conspiracy theories and contempt for others in ways resembling the rigor of thoughtfulness.

The rough solution to the impasse, for myself, goes like this. The people I most admire do a version of what's integral to reading even though they don't read. They pay close attention to their experiences and the experiences of others. They listen closely and collect relevant facts and stories. They're not interested in always being right, but are invested in how proof works. They want to form a mind where their intuitions are reasonable, and their reasoning encompasses more but doesn't panic. When I consider those who read so much they have not read anything at all, it's striking how many are wedded to a combination of fantasy and terror. This world frightens them, because it doesn't match the glories they see in their books.


Truth be told, @LiviaDiakena has read more thoroughly than I ever have. I'm jealous of the "several books on my [their] shelf stuffed with sticky notes and highlighter marks." I have short essays on passages, longer treatments of sections, but nothing like my own version of a medieval gloss. Not just marginal notes or clarification of unfamiliar terms, but a project of interpretation opening untold worlds. They speak of their "copies of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology or even Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, which has underlined passages and marginal comments on nearly all of it’s 2,500 pages." I've read all of Xenophon—I can comment credibly on most lines of Xenophon's Memorabilia—but that brief work does not extend anywhere close to thousands of pages.

Two immediate takeaways. First, this should be impressive. I mean, we live in times where 10 minute YouTube videos are considered too long. It takes tremendous focus and dedication to want to understand 2,500 pages well. Second, it's not impressive except among a certain community. @LiviaDiakena recounts: "In college I was surrounded by students and professors all wrestling through texts together; participating in such a community means putting in the work, doing the reading and showing up with notes prepared. Without something along those lines, and with most people around me hardly reading anything at all, it’s yet another reason the effort no longer feels justified."

My experience has been very different than theirs. I wouldn't use the term "community" to describe those who I should have been reading with. It's more like there's a climate of expectations, institutions, and figures within those institutions who act like the reading matters. And they do the reading, to be sure. But the ideas they elaborate have a sameness to them. Sometimes, that sameness is easy to pinpoint. I know quite a few who read Rousseau then decried him as a degenerate, or obsessed over the continuity between Augustine and Aquinas. What's stranger is when the sameness is not as easy to pinpoint, when a deeper intellectual prejudice is operative. Like, say, about what we should be reading in the first place.

The problem of sameness points to the problem of community that I've encountered. If you have a real thought, if you're deadly earnest, you're an exile. This isn't to say the academy or students or teachers are "fake." The problem is more complicated than that. Everyone is learning, everyone is taking class seriously. It's the nature of the seriousness that's the trap. If you read well and have an idea closer to the truth but countercultural, you're on your own. You may not encounter any open hostility. Others will write books about well-worn debates or explore questions of communicable interest. You could be left sputtering, with no one to help you find what you saw in the text.

Again, that's my experience. I have seen others, to be sure, build community through reading and have fruitful dialogues. I myself read a text with a friend which aided my teaching and will become a paper for submission later this year. But I do feel it is important to give voice to the neglect we readers encounter, something I've experienced far more than community.


Regarding neglect, the essay tells of a version of neglect so practiced it is informed. A professor's opinion on @LiviaDiakena's potential for graduate level work:

"More painful was a lengthy explanation that I wasn’t cut out for it, couldn’t read and respond to texts with the level of precision and rigor that was demanded, and that I should instead pursue the more creative and synthetic writing they’d seen me do."

This is just wrong. I realize there are some faculty who will disagree with me because, sure, there are times we have to express disagreeable opinions. We do have to be honest with students about what we see. This is still really, really wrong. It's a perfect example of reading being a cult as opposed to, you know, reading.

Serious reading entails formation. But not everything you engage is going to speak to you like it would for others. "Precision" and "rigor" are relative terms. Certainly, there are technical scholarly debates which require a certain level of competence. However, those debates aren't the whole of the field. Many of them will be forgotten because they're too idiosyncratic or relevant to a select few. Higher level studies need "creative and synthetic" analysis at this moment desperately. I, for one, am sick of Jordan Peterson. But @LiviaDiakena has done the right thing by taking the time to address his influence. A lot of people believe he's what a professor should be. Maybe some academics think that writing about Peterson isn't rigorous, but they're risking the whole profession by not bothering to consider how people's perceptions of intellectual life are shaped. No less than Plato thought it was important to reflect on Athenian attitudes about intellectual life. I'm at a loss to understand a colleague who can't understand what's actually important about reading and the academy.