On first readings

We’re always trying to do our second reading first. We do background reading, we look at introductory works — in short, we want to somehow “already know” the text before reading it. We can also get ahead of ourselves while doing our first reading, trying to take detailed notes on the first pass through, for example — which amounts of trying to digest before we’ve chewed. We need to let go and let the first reading be the first reading.

Background reading is helpful only as a stress-reliever. We can all be bewildered by unfamiliar references, and having read some of the key points of reference can therefore have a comforting effect. At the same time, unless you’re reading the figure as a commentator on their references (which you’re obviously not doing if you haven’t even read the references), it could just be a distraction. What’s important when reading Zizek for knowledge of Zizek is not how good his reading of Lacan or Hegel is, but what’s he’s doing with them. You can learn what he’s doing with them by reading what he says about them. Later readings of Zizek will doubtless be enriched by a firm grasp of Lacan or Hegel — but by the same token, being overly pedantic about one’s pre-existing knowledge of Lacan or Hegel could lead to a relatively unenlightening reading of Zizek. If I’m the world’s greatest Hegel scholar, for example, it’s very likely that I’ll get nothing at all out of Zizek until I bracket my own reading of Hegel and let Zizek’s Hegel be Zizek’s Hegel. Comparing his reading of Hegel to other readings of Hegel (e.g., my own) is a second-reading kind of thing. First you need to read his reading of Hegel.

There’s another related problem: the background reading requires its own background. If you’re reading Lacan to understand Zizek, for instance, you’ll inevitably need to read Freud and structuralism. Those references will themselves require further background — and that’s because there’s no such thing as “background.” Everything is foreground. Reading Freud is not going to tell you what Lacan is saying, because odds are the Freud you were reading is not going to be the Freud Lacan sees. In fact, simply reading through a Freud text because you know Lacan will refer to it in a given text could conceivably increase the confusion. To grasp Lacan, you don’t first need to build your foundation of Freud and then add the subsequent layer of Lacan — you need to go back and forth between the two. But to start that cycle, you need to start somewhere, and starting with Lacan is just as good as starting with Freud. Both will require further study and subsequent readings, and the exact form that takes will differ depending on where you start — but either way, you have to do a first reading.

Most insidious of all, however, is the introductory literature. This can be helpful if used correctly, but if the “introductory” nature of such writing is taken literally, it can lead to little more than discouragement. The gap between a crystal-clear introductory text — which is necessarily the result of years of reading and re-reading and digesting — and the first encounter with a primary text is often extreme and shocking. It’s all too easy to recoil from the primary text and take the intro’s word for it. And sometimes that can be a necessary time-saver! We can’t all study everything in detail. Sometimes you just need to get to a point where you can talk about a figure without saying anything obviously wrong, and sometimes you want to get a sense of whether more careful study is going to be worth it. Both of those are good uses of introductory literature. Reading it before reading primary texts out of the belief that it will make it easier to read the primary texts is a bad use of introductory literature. It can help you in many ways, it can point you in certain helpful directions, it can chart a path through a large corpus — but reading is still reading, and reading is hard.

Now there’s no inherent virtue in hard work. No one is required to do it if they don’t want to. For instance, I don’t want to read Badiou’s Being and Event or Logics of Worlds. I know enough about Badiou that I don’t think it would be worth it for me to do so. To me, the broad outlines of his position are unappealling enough that I doubt that the fine details would change anything. This isn’t to say that Badiou is unimportant or uninteresting or that there aren’t profound insights lurking in both of those very big books — it’s just a matter of priorities.

People are allowed to have priorities. Where it becomes problematic, however, is the point where I suspect many of these premature attempts at second readings without first readings come from — pride. We don’t want to admit that we don’t know something, and so we don’t want to let ourselves read something for the first time. We don’t want to let it be new to us, and so we categorize it and pass judgment on it even as we read. It’s not that we’re afraid of hard work per se — every academic has done a lot of hard work! We’re afraid of admitting we don’t know. But if we already know everything, then nothing can be new.

That’s the benefit of the first reading. It’s difficult, and it’s often intimidating and bewildering and even humbling — but it’s something new. We need to let ourselves experience and enjoy that newness. We need to let ourselves do first readings first and save later readings for later.

8 thoughts on “On first readings

  1. The do-the-second-reading-first strategy is also a way of procrastinating, for me at least. I want to read X, but I’ve got to read Y and Z first…. For myself though I think it’s been useful, since I never studied philosophy academically; eg. my procrastination in reading Deleuze made me read a lot more Spinoza, Leibniz, Bergson, etc. than I would have otherwise. (This is basically the strategy of controlled procrastination that you linked to on here before.) I can afford to take my time since I don’t have to finish a thesis or prepare to teach a class by a certain deadline.

  2. Thank you for this. Though my own experience is similar to what nonmanifestation describes — and that has been beneficial — it gets out of hand, with the works you really want to read accumulating largely unread in a special pile.

  3. “Embrace the pleasure of reading without understanding” was my favorite phrase (in the sense of being most valuable) from Ted Jennings’ classes.

  4. One of the easiest ways to achieve the first reading for me has been to let it sneak up on you, so to speak. This requires a good bit of luck, but what I mean is that you find a new text and pretty much immediately get started on it, rather than indulging in any preparation whatsoever. This avoids the secondary literature trap because you just don’t even take the time to consider it. However, it’s probably hard to achieve with texts that are more or less part of the canon or at least pretty highly regarded in whatever circles you run with.

    The biggest example of this in my own reading has been Agamben’s Coming Community, a book I distinctly remember becoming captivated with on the train in Philadelphia when I was visiting Villanova. I had already read various other Agamben books and felt pretty familiar with his overall project, but for some reason had never even looked at The Coming Community. It was a required reading for one of my last MA courses, so I had to take it along to Philadelphia and hope to get some reading done when I could. As a result, I found myself dipping into it with no real expectations or clue what was going on, and this sense of what I was reading continued, despite my (continued) fascination with the first 6 or 7 chapters. It’s now a text that I’ve returned to various times and I continue to find new insights, and I doubt my experience would be the same if I hadn’t had the kind of first reading that I did.

    This is a bit of a different gloss on the first reading than the hard work required to jump into certain other texts (though TCC is by no means easy), but I hope it speaks to the role that contingency and luck can play in the experience of the new. The preparation for this luck is similar to the procrastination discussion that others are invoking–I was procrastinating reading TCC because I was obsessing over whether I’d get into a Phd program and all of the concomitant life decisions that followed from that, as well as finishing up other requirements, etc. Perhaps a healthy addendum to the procrastination strategy is that you sometimes leave room for diving head first into a new text, should the opportunity present itself.

  5. It has been said that the best coaches know who not to select- and the same is true of reading. You have to make reading choices all the time and the temptation is always the ‘one more just to make sure’. The thing is to continue to read widely and deeply before we come to any project, rather than attempt to do so in relation to as particular project or text. That way we read out of a wider body of ideas and knowledge and can trust your intrepretaion. Too often what is meant to be hermeneutics becomes a series of safety-net back-up references and supporting readings that means what is presented is really a series of paraphrases and butt-covering.

  6. “Personally, I am a hedonistic reader; I have never read a book merely because it was ancient. I read books for the aesthetic emotions they offer me, and I ignore the commentaries and criticism.”
    -Jorge Luis Borges

    This is such a pure and beautiful position to take towards literature in general. It’s almost ascetic in a way. And I’m beginning to see that, as Deleuze said in reference to Burroughs, a writer writes because he “has no other choice”. The consumed text compels its own reproduction through more writing, if not directly as a commentary, then indirectly as an influence.

    It seems that choosing what to read is the crucial act that will allow writing to happen, and faced with the choice of what to read often makes me feel like a kid on too much adderall with dad’s credit card. The choices are overwhelming and finding a path through the maze is the first place to start. De Beauvoir or Game Theory? Definitely something that wasn’t a problem for the pre-Socratics, or even for people fifty years ago. Ya think?

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