My youthful experience in reading without understanding

This may shock you, but when I was a child, I was a bit of a nerd. I enjoyed comic books, sci-fi, and fantasy. At a certain point I put such childish things behind me and began reading Serious Literature, but I think that I benefited a great deal from my early passions. They taught me the art of jumping into a story in medias res and not worrying so much about catching every single reference.

It’s probably clearest in comic books, where most of the characters have intricate storylines stretching back for decades, overlapping with other characters in various ways. The current writers were accountable to this long and unwieldy tradition — in fact, even if the continuity was “reset” in some way, it had to be accounted for within the existing continuity (much as the new Star Trek movies take place in an alternate timeline of the original series). Footnotes to previous issues were a regular feature, and I always enjoyed the arcana of the letter columns where readers would ask tough questions about how the current plot fit with what had happened before. In fact, I was especially attracted to Green Lantern, a series with a sprawling cast of dozens of characters spread across the entire universe and a history presumably extending to the beginnings of life itself.

Now it is not the case that I really had to go back and read the whole run of a given series to understand what was going on, much less the entire “universe” of comics. I did take the continuity seriously and even bought some random old issues (searching dilligently in the comic book shop’s archive for $1 issues) just to dip in and see what it was like back then. Over time, though, I implicitly figured out how to separate out the trappings of tradition from what was going on in the moment. The tradition often provided the idea for a given plot, but if that was the case, they always explained it tolerably well. Other gestures toward the continuity were more or less decorative, reassuring the reader that the comic book stood within the familiar universe.

More recently, I have been indulging in my childhood fascintion with Star Trek, rewatching Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. It strikes me that I was not a frequent enough viewer to really understand the overarching plots, nor did I ever have much use for the original series, which just struck me as tacky and incomprehensible — but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Now I’ve been occasionally dipping into the original series and have been impressed by how many of the later plots can be read as a weird kind of Talmudic commentary on the originals. Seeing how that works has provided an added layer of enjoyment (and given me a way “into” the original series, which still strikes me as kind of weird and appalling), but I nevertheless got something out of the show when I didn’t know all that.

Looking back, I think one could say that I carried these attitudes pretty seamlessly over into my transition to Serious Literature, which began with some furtive, pretensious efforts early in high school and resulted in a fascination with literary criticism that basically set the agenda for the rest of my life. I was comfortable reading without understanding — probably too comfortable in retrospect, as I’m always embarrassed when I go back over a text I remember having read in high school — and I had a lively sense of being able to sample things without having to go whole-hog on them. Already in my mass-culture entertainment, there had been inscrutable moments and all the trappings of scholarly tradition, so it wasn’t especially surprising or intimidating when Serious Literature had similar things. (In fact, all the background knowledge was much more readily accessible than for comic books, back in those pre-Wikipedia days.)

Perhaps I’m still reading comic books in a way, but I’ve reached the point with some of them where I feel comfortable joining in the arcane discussions in the letters to the editor. (And there’s a whole other post to write about how this early experience weirdly interacted with my approach to the Bible growing up.)

One thought on “My youthful experience in reading without understanding

  1. I actually wrote a paper in seminary on the notion of the ‘canon’ and midrash within the ‘canon’ in Marvel comics and in Alan Moore’s Promethea–and as I was going through some files in my move last year I came across this paper and, looking through it, thought that these interests in childhood shaped many of my later academic interests. I too attended a Trek convention or two, even a Transformer show before it became more mainstream, and many comic book conventions. I even read Wizard magazine from its first issue until a couple years before it ceased publication. It reminds me of the scene in High Fidelity, I think, where someone criticizes the guys working in the record store, saying, “you act like you’re some kind of unappreciated scholars.”

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