Disagreement: good or bad?

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

Here’s a silly thought on why talking about literature is fun, from an ancient book about reading by English critic John Sutherland:

“One of the reassuring features of the current vogue for reading groups is the degree of disagreement they generate once the discussion gets going” (John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel, 2006)

(Is there a vogue? Was there in 2006? Anyway:) The assumption that disagreement should be something people actually want, is interesting if somewhat crazy. Because disagreement to me seems a rather terrifying and useless thing. That’s why I don’t like it. Basically, it’s enough for me to watch it on tv, in ritualized debates between politicians. This has a rather soothing effect on me.

Any decent discussion in real life is very similar if not as efficient as such rituals. We all know that what we think somehow makes a difference in the world. The more chaotic the world seems to be, the more important it is not to debate but to stick to who you are and what you represent. It’s rather a question of choosing sides. Disagreement doesn’t help in any way. Every wrong opinion helps to destroy the world, every right opinion can save it. If someone disagrees with you, about climate change, gender studies, or the use of Anglizismen, they are basically bad people, and there’s no need to listen to them.

But that’s probably why Sutherland thinks disagreement is a good thing when we talk about cultural stuff, because the cultural, soft stuff (films, music, dreams etc.), by convention, isn’t as important as the real, hard stuff (jobs, money, power etc.). So there is no obligation to be right. We can say whatever we want: it won’t matter very much. And I admit that there’s a great amount of freedom to be had here, even if it’s an illusion; you can debate and still respect each other, you can even change your opinion, and you can learn something new (it’s still useless knowledge of course).

As Mr Sutherland points out, a discussion about a novel can feel almost as real and important as if it were about things that matter. Take the ever popular Wuthering Heights, for example:

“‘Is Heathcliff a swine or tragic hero?’: throw that question into the reading group and stand back. Chances are no two members of the group, however like-minded on other things, will entirely agree with each other at the beginning of the discussion, and – however opinions may have changed – members will usually disagree among themselves even more as the discussion (good naturedly) winds up.”

My friend Michael tells me that’s actually what he wants when he does Deep Reading. He says he likes people to discuss useless things in class, because he believes – somehow influenced by book lovers like Sutherland I think – that literature isn’t totally unimportant. (He is unable, of course, to explain this assessment.) He says he actually encourages people to disagree because he “likes it”.

I don’t know. It’s obviously wrong to think that way. But I thought I share this idea with you anyway.

Another reading mistake to consider not doing

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

The other day, while I was thinking about regression, reading the explanation I had found again and again to make sure I had understood it, a newspaper article made me aware of another mistake people apparantly make: reading too much. Instead of reading whatever comes our way, the author said, we should read only fine things and then read them again:

Wir lesen falsch. Wir lesen zu wenig selektiv und zu wenig gründlich. Wir lassen unserer Aufmerksamkeit freien Lauf, als wäre sie ein zugelaufener Hund, den wir gleichgültig weiterstreunen lassen, anstatt ihn auf prächtige Beute abzurichten.

It’s a decent suggestion not to treat your attention like a stray dog. It’s what my friend Michael lives for. And I remember how he has even used the idea of re-reading to explain people why he likes certain writers more than others, because if he can read them at least twice they must be really good. Michael also likes quoting the idea that a book that’s not worth reading twice isn’t worth reading once. He keeps forgetting who said that, but it is both witty and true, he says, so what does it matter.

If you consider the incredible amount of available books to read, reading anything twice is indeed a bit radical: It’s being stubborn, saying no to what you don’t know, and insisting that what you like is good enough for you. Which I feel is somehow a little bit wrong, ideology-wise. Sooner or later, people will say you’re a hermit and lack open-mindedness.

In any case, if you actually read only the good stuff you own again and again then at some point in your life you may not need to buy anything new anymore. Can you imagine a life like that? No Amazon wishlist? Nothing new to discover? If this frightens you half as much as me, it may help that the author of the article said you should start being a self-sufficient reader at around forty. Before that you can read whatever and build up a taste. So if you’re young, just let your mind be a dog and eat whatever it finds.

A typical reading mistake I have internalized

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

So the other day I happened to find the self-description of a course in “improved reading”, which includes the following, rather confident, objective:

“The first day of the course teaches you how to eliminate the typical reading mistakes which most people have internalized and maintained since primary school: regression, reading word by word, complete mental hearing.”

I don’t know what “regression” is, so I’m making a mental note to look it up. (It doesn’t sound good, though.) And I don’t know what “complete mental hearing” is either (though it sounds pretty interesting, and I may want to try it one day). But I think I do have a vague idea about “reading word by word”, because it’s what for my friend Michael makes all the fun in reading. He never stops talking about it, really. It’s also what he tries to encourage doing in a so called “deep reading workshop”. So when I told him about this being a mistake, he told me he “had half a mind to be mildly frustrated” by the fact that what he likes doing so much is now considered a typical mistake he may have carried over from his childhood. Like a habit that seems fun but really isn’t good for you if you want to make it in this world. Like counting birds landing on trees, for example, or talking to stones.

Well, I told him that, obviously, “improved reading” has nothing to do with reading for fun. The course I was quoting from is designed for people who have to read lots and lots of things. Most of these things are probably so academic that they would make you go mad if you were forced to read them word by word. (Interesting idea, though, to torment people by making them read something really awful this way.) So “improved reading” is designed for people who have to turn themselves into reading machines in order to survive. (“Do they?” is what my friend Michael asked, “Couldn’t they do something else with their lives?” A characteristic response from someone who has never worked hard for anything.)

I keep digressing. I guess my point is that I should look up those terms I don’t know. And that I should maybe remember not to be too harsh on PhD students in the future, because their life is hard. (My friend Michael says that’s rubbish, and that doing a PhD is “easy as pie”, but I don’t think he knows what he is talking about.)