30 March 2005 - Wednesday

Reading lists and the hermeneutic circle

I often read books before I am equipped to understand them. When I was fourteen or fifteen, for example, I chewed my way through a great deal of A. V. Dicey's The Law of the Constitution (1885); although this book taught me the origin of the expression "read the riot act" and informed me that the British constitution is hard to find written down in any one place, it was probably the least efficient way I could have discovered these things. I'm not sure why I ended up reading it. On the other hand, I often discover that I have not read texts everyone else read in junior high and high school. Except for a few outliers, for example, I haven't had much experience with the American novels everybody is supposed to read as a teenager.

I'm a great fan of educational programs that have students read primary sources extensively--at all ages. On the other hand, students need guidance from secondary sources in order to understand what they read. Even with help, many readers later find themselves wishing that they had waited longer to read, say, War and Peace for the first time (just such a reflection in Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity served as the inspiration for this post).

This is not a particularly big problem for short works, but longer works involve a significant opportunity cost for the audience; if the reader is too inexperienced to have a basic appreciation of the whole before he reads the first part, he will probably find it unprofitable to wade into the text at all. Even the brightest third-grader will find it difficult to appreciate enough of The Divine Comedy to make reading the full text more valuable than reading a summary. In such a case, the first reading of the work would be better deferred, however great the literature may be.

At the same time, I think it unfortunate that so many people know so many texts only through the eyes of other readers. Early development of "cultural literacy" is desirable, but in some cases so much important detail gets washed out of a text that the popular understanding of it is not only shallow but inaccurate. To use an example that has appeared on this blog before, I believe the film Rashōmon (to construe "text" loosely) has entered the popular imagination as something entirely different from what the director had in mind. Even when the public's understanding of a work is generally accurate, it may be distilled to the point of denaturation, stripped of everything that would make the text interesting to the individual and thus effective as a means of communication. (The higher a document is held in the cultural esteem, the less likely people are ever to get around to reading it. The dust on America's copies of the works of Shakespeare could be measured in cubic yards.) Even if a member of the public knows important things about such a text, he cannot claim to understand it.

In other words, while one must often understand the whole of a work before being able to understand any of its parts, one rarely gets an appropriate understanding of the whole without interacting with those parts.

How, then, should we design a program of reading, for ourselves or for others? If there are "canons" to be followed, where do we begin them? Should we design reading programs around themes that will explicate texts, or around texts that will reveal themes? Given unlimited time and energy, of course, a student could simply read everything over and over--but in real life, efficiency is desirable.

| Posted by Wilson at 20:08 Central | TrackBack
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