On reading with a theme

A close friend of mine is studying for her orals in literature. This, if you are unfamiliar, is the strange and wonderful rite of passage that all PhD candidates must cross. In literature, it involves reading an absurd number of books, often a mix of canonical texts along with relevant critical commentary, with such care and attention that one’s brain becomes incapable of processing any other information. (Those studying for their orals may be forgiven for reciting Joyce when they mean to ask to pass the salt.) The culmination of this orgy of reading is a small room with a single bright spotlight wherein the student is asked a series of exacting and obscure questions about the books she is supposed to have read; an incorrect or insufficiently robust answer summons Kiefer Sutherland to the room to rip out her fingernails. (At least, that’s how I imagine it.)

But it’s not so much the examination part of this process that interests me as the reading that leads up to it. It’s an exhausting task, not only to read in such significant quantities but to read attentively and retain that reading in sufficient detail to withstand questioning. My experience has been that the more ravenously I read, the more each book recedes. How, then, does one keep so many texts in view all at once?

This is a trick question; the first answer is, you don’t. The second answer is the more interesting one, however, in that you control the manner of forgetting. You can’t remember every character or allusion in precise detail, but you can recall how each text fits into a particular theme, or where each book is located in your personal library. In this way, the myriad details of the book are free to fade away—as they would have anyway—while the meaning of the text remains clear.

A theme can be highly restrictive (as is the case for many hopeful PhDs) or welcoming and broad. It needn’t be immutable or singular, but it needs to provide sufficient constraints to be useful. My theme—of late, anyway—is the reading experience, and in particular the ways in which the reading of one text is affected by and affects the reading of others. This is sufficiently broad in that it admits of many different kinds of texts (part of the point), but it’s also restricted by the books I’ve read before. Every new book must fit into the existing library, such that it’s often easy for me to discard potential new reads on the basis of not having a place to shelve them.

There’s a risk here that by exposing and supporting the preconceptions you bring to a text you are in fact closing yourself off to anything new. A less flattering way to describe this kind of reading would be reading with an agenda, which, in the pejorative, evokes isolationism and intolerance. But the reality is that none of us reads with a completely open mind anyway; being aware of our biases is the only method we have of questioning them. And, as is often the case, the loss in quantity of vision can be offset by the gain in quality.

Ever since reading Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I’ve struggled to rectify some of his ideas with those of my own. Namely, his caution that reading too much or too attentively will force you through the looking glass, and my own deeply held belief that a life rich in reading is the only path to thinking and creating. Reading with a theme may allow me to split the difference, in that I can read voraciously without losing myself in the text. It’s a way of holding my own ideas in higher regard than the author’s—not because they are superior, but because they are mine.

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