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.