“I read the whole thing!”

I teach an on-line class on pieces of great literature, big and small, and get student reactions along the way.  When they get to Moby Dick, about half of them express frustration about having to ‘get through it all,” or delight at “having got through it” — even as I stress that the particular chapters and even a line or so within one of them, can be richer than imagined, and quite enough to ponder, apart from ‘getting through it all.’

I got to thinking: It’s funny — we ask ourselves if we’ve ‘read the whole thing’ when someone inquiries about the opinion piece in the NYTimes, and maybe we answer to a friend “I didn’t read the whole thing.” And the question and answer make sense.  But with Moby Dick or Wittgenstein’s Investigations, it makes no sense to ask, or answer, the question “Did you read the whole thing?”– as if the point is to have your eyes move over every word and check it off as “read” (and look ahead to the pile of words in the “not read” bin).

I guess if it’s a museum exhibition, the analogy would be seeing every painting in every room. But does a glance count as “seeing.”  And if it’s good art is “seeing” ever done”? Is ‘seeing’ an ‘accomplishment’ verb?  Maybe it’s an ‘endless activity’ verb.

What if reading Moby Dick is more like reading all of a city, or all of Beethoven (or Dylan)? Then you introduce the idea of degrees of reading — you can glance at a lot of words, and not read one, and really ponder a phrase endlessly and feel it is still ‘unread.’ You can read it many times and still want to return for more, because there’s more there.

I go to parts of Moby Dick over and over, over the years, the way I’d go to parts of a city over and over — never getting enough. And there are some streets of the city I glance at and know I’m uninterested. If it’s an opinion piece in the NYTimes, you can ask, “did you read it and understand it.” But with Moby Dick (like great theater or a city or a stretch of the high sierra) you can go back again and again, even fall sleep, but without any sense of disappointment, because there’s no meaning to the idea of ‘reading it all’ (seeing it all, hearing it all, knowing it all, understanding it all, loving it all) — once and for all.  There’s no check off list. Any minute  can satisfy.  Why look ahead or behind to what’s done or undone?

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This entry was posted in Reading.

4 comments on ““I read the whole thing!”

  1. The metaphor of exploring a city is very nice, with respect to these texts.

    Another example of what you have in mind, I think, is reading _Finnegans Wake_. Of course, people often aspire to synoptic readings of the text. And, I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy some of these readings – especially when I first started reading it and needed something to orient me. However, these are all preliminaries to what I regard as a mature reading of the Wake: namely, a reading which is partial, fragmentary, and non-linear. That is, there’s something in the Wake that demands that we allow ourselves to open it up and read snippets of varying length in whatever order we feel called to read them at the moment. And, I would add to this a complementary thought: the text also demands that we not lose ourselves in the desire to interpret and understand – to chase down every reference, every pun, every echo of every language used in it – but rather balance that impulse against the joys of being lost, of enjoying a play of meaning whose obscurity is partly what induces ecstatic, almost hallucinatory joy.

    On a different note, I think that we should be cautious about our own impulses to think that certain texts *don’t* call for the kind of reading you compare to exploring a city. Sometimes, we submit too quickly in making such judgments to the conventions governing genre. Sometimes, reading against the grain of these conventions can open us up to new dimensions of the text. Perhaps the finest example of reading in the exploratory way that you sketch, but against the grain of our textual conventions, is Benjamin’s _Arcades Project_.

    Or, to take less sublime examples: one of the most productive impulses in criticism of the last hundred years has been to read ‘low culture’ texts (and also artifacts of other kinds) in the ways we are more used to deploying with respect to literary texts. Although this ambition has sometimes gone off the rails, it has also yielded many moral, political, and historical insights in cultural studies.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes, very nice! There can be a lowly sublime and well as a high-brow sublime, and everything in between. And it’s not only ‘sublimity’ that stops us in our tracks (or ought to).

  2. Hunter says:

    Dr. Mooney,
    Do you happen to supervise doctoral work in philosophy?

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