The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading

Jesse Stommel

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all.

~ Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Not reading is serious scholarly business. It is a crucial part of the work of critics, students, teachers, and reviewers. Pierre Bayard writes that not reading constitutes “our primary way of relating to books. We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist.” Stephen Ramsay writes similarly in “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books,” “The world is vast. Art is long. What else can we do but survey the field, introduce a topic, plant a seed.”

Prepared is best, but unprepared is always better than overprepared. This is what I believe about preparing for class, about analysis, about reading. What’s important is that we make careful decisions about how best to prepare for the act of learning. It is equally important, though, to leave gaps in that preparation for what is unexpected and uncertain. The best books, fiction or non-fiction, as I write in “Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface,” “hit me sidelong when I least expect it. They bubble to the surface at inopportune moments.” Reading feels sometimes like eating. But more often like the murmur of hunger just before eating.

When I read, I’m not sure what room I’m in. Increasingly, I read online and forget I’m in any room at all. I’m often reading more than one thing at a time, shuffling between browser windows. The room around me — with its dog to be fed and dear people to be listened to — becomes somewhere else entirely. An endless hallway where things pass by me and half-heard questions get added to the queue in my brain. And the stacks of books I’ve not yet read, the ones that beckon from so many rooms, are as important to me and my learning as the stacks of finished ones. Each of them is a decision I’ve made, and I’ve spent much of my academic life deciding not to read. I’ve been an English major from B.A. to M.A. to Ph.D., and I’ve read surprisingly few books copiously from cover to cover. Reading for me has always been more akin to a series of willful cursory glances. And my not reading has been intensely active. It has included talking, researching, writing, making, teaching, wondering, holding, glancing, flipping, filming, watching, etc.

As a teacher, I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what that reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again, etc. Most importantly, I ask why. It’s often as interesting to know why we put a book down, as it is to know why we pick one up — to examine our looking away and to examine our compulsion to avoid thinking about or theorizing that looking away. I don’t actively discourage students from reading, but I also do not police their reading. If they’re having trouble, I talk to them about reading strategies (which often involve skimming or thoughtful skipping). I never assume students aren’t reading because of laziness. I always assume their reasons are as complex as my own. And I never work to fill the gaps of their not reading with shame. Like teaching and learning, reading cannot be compulsory.

Reading is an encounter. When they’re about to read a more challenging text like House of LeavesMoby Dick, or Mrs. Dalloway, I tell students that finishing should not be the goal. I would argue this is how these particular books are meant to be read, but also how any book is meant to be read, as an act of volition. I’ve taught Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves twice and presented on it twice, but I’ve never finished the book. It would be easy for me to excuse myself critically by saying that the book, by its nature, can never be finished. But by that definition and by any definition, I haven’t finished the book. I estimate that I’ve read about 40% of the words of the book, looked at 60% of the pages, and have read less than half of 1% of the marginalia the book has produced online.

Reading is not an accomplishment I take to the text. It’s a dialogue, something I do to the text and something the text does to me. When I take a book into a classroom, reading and analysis become encounters I have together with a group of students. It is valuable to the encounter to have students in the room that haven’t even cracked the book, even some arriving to the discussion having never felt the weight of it in their hands. For analysis, arrival and exactly not finishing is the goal, or at least a crucial part of it. Learning is a series of constant arrivals. And we should be just as willing to talk about and theorize our non-arrivals.

This is the exact sort of work I hope to inspire here — an interactive criticism that considers not only how our work engages a text but also the complicated ways that a text engages (and sometimes disengages) us. Interactive criticism: 1) recognizes that media is haptic and that we engage even seemingly intangible media in a visceral way; 2) is an encounter with a text in which we do something to the text and the text does something to us; 3) acknowledges that looking away and theorizing that looking away is a critical gesture; 4) is always unfinished, the start to a conversation not a reservoir. Roland Barthes calls this “applied reading.” Laura U. Marks calls this “haptic criticism,” a kind of reading that “presses up to the object and takes its shape.”

I’ve spent more time not reading House of Leaves than I’ve spent reading other books. The same is true of Moby Dick and Mrs. Dalloway, which I’ve taught multiple times but “finished” only once. These books haunts me — hit me sidelong when I least expect it. They bubble to the surface at inopportune moments. And there are holes in these texts I haven’t yet fallen into. Holes in them I probably never will fall into.

This is my work, increasingly — to encourage students and other teachers to recognize that there is no genuine turn to a text that doesn’t include both not knowing and not wanting to know as potential outcomes. There is no reading, analysis, or teaching that doesn’t involve awe at the space in the text we haven’t yet seen. For this reason, as a teacher, I sometimes even avoid reading myself as a tactical advantage, a way of knowing the text better through my own curiosity and surprise — a way of seeing the text better and more poignantly by looking away.

What I see when I’m not looking at the text are tangents, small cuts across its surface where leakage occurs. This is the part of the text I feel most viscerally, the part I fail to ever read, because my body stops me—because the words are difficult, sharp, or even empty. Sometimes, I’m not sure why I don’t read. This too should be theorized. And recognized as part — and not a negative part — of what it is to learn. Pierre Bayard writes, “The key, in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation.” Ultimately, pedagogy is less about required reading and more about copious piles of half-finished books and the stuff we build around them.

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