On November 23, 2020, the University of Pennsylvania’s Workshop on the History of Materials Texts hosted a “Writing on Objects” roadshow, and I shared “Fluttering Codes: A Cultural History of the Split Flap Display”; my presentation starts at around 22:00
I’m writing an article on “little libraries” for a journal — but, as usual, I’ve got way too much material, and the resulting article has turned out way too long. I’m prepared to have to do some painful pruning. I’ve already decided that my intro had to go, so I’m posting it here:
Illustrator and comic book artist Adrian Tomine is perhaps best known among the general reading public for his New Yorker covers, which usually depict people’s public engagement with books. In one, an independent book shop owner catches his neighbor accepting a shipment from Amazon; in another, a teenage girl atop a double-decker tour bus ignores what has so captivated her photo-snapping parents and chooses instead to focus on her novel; in still another, a motley crew in an airport lounge reads, independently yet in unison, while they wait out a snowstorm; and in yet another, a pair of attractive young singles, sitting in passing subway trains, shares a glance through the window and discovers they’re reading the same book. In each of these scenes, the book lives at the center of a social world, either connecting or disconnecting people, informing how they interact with their material surroundings. And in each, there’s a hint of preemptive nostalgia for what’s about to be lost, and an unease about what’s to come. Will the snow stop and the airplanes take flight again before these would-be travelers exhaust their reading material? Are the boy and girl in the subway fated to meet again? How will the shop owner and his neighbor greet one another on the street after this awkward encounter – and will his bookshop beat the odds and survive the Amazon onslaught?
A more recent Tomine cover illustration raises a related set of issues. Depicting a bookstore display of canonical-author paraphernalia – bobble-head dolls, hats, posters, t-shirts – opposite a selection of e-readers, it calls into question the material futures of the book and reading. As the text itself becomes virtual, will these literary souvenirs become the only material trace of print culture? We’ve wondered, and worried, for decades now about the futures of our bookstores, our libraries, our books, and the future of reading itself….
The past couple weeks have been consumed by committee meetings and student advising. The next three weeks promise to be more of the same. At the same time, we’re moving back to Brooklyn, and we’re painting our new apartment — one room at a time, one late night after another. All this is to say that I’ve had little opportunity to think beyond what I’m teaching, what my students need, what committee meetings I’m heading to next, what goes into what box, and how to get that grey paint off my Vans.
Still, I’ve managed to process some of the conversations I’ve had in my many student advising meetings over the past few weeks. One particular phrase resonates for me — perhaps “clangs” is a more appropriate verb. I hear it every now and then, usually from students who are completing a first semester full of required courses: “I know this already.” “I read X as an undergrad; I know him already.” “I taught myself years ago how to use Y technology; I know that already.” “I learned how to write in high school; I know that already.”
What does it mean — to know something already? The claim implies that “knowing” is an event that “happens,” a state one attains, at a particular moment — a moment that, for these particular students, allegedly took place prior to their arrival at graduate school. There’s nothing more to know; knowledge has been achieved and exhausted. Any further encounters are redundant — or, worse, a waste of time.
When I started graduate school in 1998 I don’t recall assuming I knew anything. I had been exposed as an undergraduate to some of the thinkers and theories that reappeared on our graduate syllabi — but the only thing I was sure of as an undergrad was the partiality of my knowing. Sure, I made it through Habermas and Pynchon and Haraway in my junior and senior years; I read all the pages, but I certainly wasn’t capable of appreciating all the intellectual and aesthetic treasures in those pages. So I welcomed a chance to read them again — actually, perhaps to really read them for the first time — in a different context, with a different group of fellow readers and discussants, and for a different purpose.
I created for my grad students a guide on “reading effectively”; I start by referencing an article called “Learning to Read, Again,” published earlier this year in the The Chronicle Review:
Academics take reading for granted. We learned to read in first grade, and those skills have served us well ever since…
Although the words, syntax, and ideas are more complex, isn’t reading in graduate school fundamentally like reading in first grade?
It isn’t, of course. Not only is reading Foucault more intellectually challenging than reading Goodnight Moon (although the two have quite a bit in common, both emphasizing omnipresent surveillance), but the application of reading differs. For the most part, earlier reading is an attempt to grasp the meaning of a text so that one can repeat it to an authority, who then judges whether one “got” the ideas. At that level, reading is regurgitation.
In graduate school, reading and the ability to discuss and interpret that reading are simultaneously a means by which a student asserts an academic identity and the basis on which a student can produce new knowledge.
“Getting” a text is one kind of “knowing” it; grappling with a text — critically engaging with it, discerning its context, putting it into dialogue with others, building upon it — is another “knowing” entirely. Only the incredibly rare undergraduate is capable of the latter.
We can say similar things about researching and writing. Students commonly say they already know how to use a library, yet so few of them do. They already know how to research, yet when they come to my office to say they’ve exhausted the literature on their topic — that they “know it all already” — I discover that there are relevant theoretical concepts they’d never heard, relevant subfields of study they’d never known about, search keywords they’d never considered, all of which open up an entirely new realm of not-knowing. I say this not to mock their ignorance or overconfidence, but to wonder at their seeming discomfort with admitting unknowing and embracing it as an opportunity — an opportunity to revisit texts they thought they knew, to retrace the borders of fields they thought they mastered.
As for writing; students commonly assume that if they learned to write a research paper in high school, they “already know how to write.” So not true. Even if one is a competent writer, there’s tremendous value in continually reevaluating one’s writing process, style, etc. Even if one has practice with a particular form — say, an exegetical essay, a literature review, or a thesis — there’s always more to be learned when we flesh out those forms with new contents, for new audiences, and in new contexts. As we develop our abilities to grapple with the “raw material” from which we’re crafting an argument, our writing of those arguments must necessarily evolve, too.
I thought I was a solid writer in high school. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college, when Robin Schulze (who’s apparently now at Delaware) gave me a B on my first paper in her Reading Poetry class and told me that I was writing in a way that I thought “sounded academic,” that I realized that one’s writing — perhaps particularly when one’s really good at it, as she was, or as the poets we read in class were — needs continually to be reassessed. I bless Robin for initially devastating me; for sitting with me for an hour to talk about how to write what I mean and mean what I write; and for making me a better, more conscious, more sensitive reader and writer in the process.
Rather than thinking “I know this already,” I wish my students could more readily embrace — and be inspired by — the unknowns outside (and perhaps even inside) their “knowns,” and to appreciate the various kinds and degrees of “knowing” a text or a skill. I wish more of them had the patience to appreciate the value of repetition — of rereading, rewriting, rethinking. You may “know it already,” but you’ll know it even better, you’ll know it differently — maybe you’ll even come to realize that you never knew it at all, and you’re finally coming to know it for the first time — upon reading it again.