A little over eight years ago I began my real education. It was then that I learned the quite embarrassing fact that, though already in college, I had not yet learned how to read. Before that, I thought I knew how to read inasmuch as I could scan and understand the meaning of words written in the English language at a more or less satisfactory speed. But one day, or, really, somewhat gradually over the course of several weeks, my ignorance was made manifest by my inability to understand entire passages of books we had been asked to read. The works – all great works of the western canon – were written in or translated into English; the meaning of each word was clear to me; but as the words combined to form sentences, the sentences paragraphs, and so on, the meaning of the whole became ever more opaque. The distress of this experience – which was not an altogether new experience – might not have led to any special revelation had my professor simply told me and the rest of the class how one should read the text, thereby allowing me to substitute his good reading for my poor one. Much of the class thought as a professor he should have been teaching us, by which they meant telling us what to think – what else are professors for, if not professing? Instead, he deftly guided the class discussion along certain lines of inquiry in an style that was critical, ironic, lively, but that also betrayed an infectious enthusiasm and even love for (most of) the texts and a sincere concern for his students.
The challenge of reading on one’s own was brought into full relief during the writing portion of the class. We had none of the usual exams or quizzes, the purpose of which always seemed to be testing the obedience of a student rather than his learning. We were asked to write essays, sometimes prompted only by the command to write something. Essentially, this left each of us alone to discover which ideas were interesting and rich enough to write about. For each of the first several texts, I struggled mightily to find an idea that could be developed into the subject of a small essay. Fortunately, it turns out this kind of writing – writing without being given the kind of prompt that explains too clearly how a text should or even just might be read – is the best cure for illiteracy. Writing brought a greater discipline to my reading; it forced me to dig deeper, think more critically; it clarified both the errors and the more interesting points of my reading, and provided me with a guide for further reading, which in turn improved my writing.
This cycle of reading, writing, re-reading, and revising, was incredibly slow and tedious work at times – but I saw quickly that it was necessary. I learned that one needs to ruminate in order to read well, and rumination, by definition, cannot be done hastily. Years later, I came across two passages from Nietzsche which explain more perfectly, more beautifully than any others I’ve seen what it means to read well. The first is from the preface of his Genealogy of Morals:
“To be sure, one thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way, something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays – and therefore it will be some time before my writings are “readable” – something for which one has almost to be a cow and in any case not a “modern man”: rumination.”
The second, from the preface of his book Dawn:
“A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading: in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste – a malicious taste, perhaps? – no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!”
This approach to learning made every student uncomfortable. Most didn’t see the confusion it caused (or merely made apparent) as a necessary condition for their intellectual growth. They resented our teacher for not sparing us the discomfort of that confusion. I was, am, grateful. In leaving me my discomfort, he spared me my ignorance.