Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

For the Love of Reading

‘For though reading seems so simple—a mere matter of knowing the alphabet—it is indeed so difficult that it is doubtful whether anybody knows anything about it.’

Virginia Woolf

We often seem to think reading is a simple thing, if not downright banal. We pretend that if we know the letters, if we speak the language, we can somehow just put together the words, sentences , as if there is no more to say about that. But there is indeed much, much more to say.

Against better judgment, I felt compelled to write a bit about reading in my PhD thesis, including this:

In contrast to the more occasional encounters with other humans and more-than-humans, the texts are always there, I am always reading. If I cannot write, if I cannot think, I can read, and it almost always instigates some movement, just enough to start thinking. So significant is reading, yet I almost didn’t mention it at all, because no-one ever really talks about reading as something worth mentioning, yet what could be more important?

While it may be something most of us can do with relative ease, as we read regularly – text messages, social media posts, ingredient lists and recipes, subtitles, road signs, instruction manuals, novels, poems, lyrics for our favorite song and so on – there is nothing simple about reading.

However, in academia, it is merely taken for granted that we can all read. So robust is this assumption that we hardly ever talk about it. We all read, we throw texts and citations around like there’s no tomorrow, but we pay little attention to the act of reading.

Like so many other things, reading seems all too often reduced to a simple instrument, a technical exercise where we, the scholars, read because we need something, we expect something from the text. We are reading as if we are ‘mining the world for data’, as Tim Ingold scornfully described it, when perhaps we should rather be ‘honouring the world () offering something in return for the gift of existence’? (Ingold, 2021, p. xii).

Could we read in a more curious, caring, generous and playful way?

I don’t know, because we rarely talk about how we read. We just don’t talk about it.

As Lina Katan and Charlotte Andreas Baarts have argued:

the way that academic texts are read and how they form the basis of both student and researcher knowledge production is a largely neglected area of study and research practice.

Lina Katan and Charlotte Andreas Baarts

And further:

Reading is generally considered neither a method of inquiry in its own right nor a practice with significant impact on research results.

Lina Katan and Charlotte Andreas Baarts

I am beginning to think this is a serious misunderstanding. Maybe we need some friction to go with those assumptions, a ‘hair in the flour’, to use Anna Tsing’s words.

I recently read Virginia Woolf’s beautiful essay ‘How Should One Read a Book?‘ and I was surprised and moved by how reinvigorating it was. While Woolf talked about literature and ‘works of pure imagination’, I would have loved to ask her what she would tell us about reading as an academic practice. I feel she may have had much to say.

She suggested that:

‘To read a book well, one should read it as if one were writing it. Begin not by sitting on the bench among the judges but by standing in the dock with the criminal. Be his fellow worker, become his accomplice.’

Virginia Woolf

I hear echoes, for instance, of Latour’s critique of critique.

And she went on to suggest what seems like a playful way of reading:

‘To be able to read books without reading them, to skip and saunter, to suspend judgment, to lounge and loaf down the alleys and bye-streets of letters is the best way of rejuvenating one’s own creative power.’

In a somewhat similar vein, yet far more recently, Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre & Elliott Kuecker have argued that:

‘it is necessary to read a lot, to ready constantly, to read for years and years, and to read across disciplinary boundaries. It is especially important to read philosophy to find concepts and conceptual orders that reorient thought. We believe reading is the long—lifelong—preparation for inquiry that provides access to thought we didn’t know existed, thought so threatening it was abandoned or refused, thought we did not know we could think, thought that encourages experimentation and creativity, thought that might make possible people and worlds that do not yet exist. If we confine our reading to what we recognize and understand, then we’re constrained by what “everybody knows” (Deleuze, 1968/1994, p. 130), the curated, the normalized, the dogmatic’

Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre & Elliott Kuecker

And in fever words, they recommend:

…reading widely and indiscriminately across disciplinary boundaries. We recommend scandalous reading that shocks thought so it can think otherwise.

Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre & Elliott Kuecker

If Arturo Escobar, and so many others, are right when they insist that ‘everything has to change’, then reading, and reading in a more generous and playful way, may help us to ‘think otherwise’. I have, again and again, Jack Halberstam‘s argument echoing in my head:

Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.

Jack Halberstam

And to do that, to get lost, to lose our bearings, to forget where we thought we were going, few things are more helpful than reading, reading, reading, all the time, reading.

I love it – and maybe that’s enough? At least Virginia Woolf seems to have thought so:

‘If the moralists ask us how we can justify our love of reading, we can make use of some such excuse as this. But if we are honest, we know that no such excuse is needed. It is true that we get nothing whatsoever except pleasure from reading; it is true that the wisest of us is unable to say what that pleasure may be. But that pleasure—mysterious, unknown, useless as it is—is enough. That pleasure is so curious, so complex, so immensely fertilizing to the mind of anyone who enjoys it, and so wide in its effects, that it would not be in the least surprising to discover, on the day of judgment when secrets are revealed and the obscure is made plain, that the reason why we have grown from pigs to men and women, and come out from our caves, and dropped our bows and arrows, and sat round the fire and talked and drunk and made merry and given to the poor and helped the sick and made pavements and houses and erected some sort of shelter and society on the waste of the world, is nothing but this: we have loved reading.’

Virginia Woolf

Reading won’t save us from our perils, of course, but it might attune us differently to the world we know, to the worlds that are becoming, to each other and to everything we encounter on planet Earth – and beyond.


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