On Reading and Not Reading Theoretical Works

Paul Petard cartoon

Chris Wright's thoughts on reading effectively.

Submitted by libcom on July 27, 2005

One of the biggest requests made by people is "What should I read?" It may be topical: What should I read to find out about council communism? It may be a question of how best to grasp something over time: What order should I read these things in?

What people frequently fail to ask is "How should I read?" Yet that is the truly important question. Once you have come to this website, you already have some idea of What, and the Revolutionary Reading Guide will give an ample number of topically and politically organised additions to anyone's What. Rather, we should ask ourselves about the How. To answer that, let me suggest first and foremost how not to read.

Please note: Every mistake I am about to outline, every bad habit, I have been and still often am, guilty of. The suggestions on how to read are the product of nearly 20 years of making mistakes and learning, and most of the good habits I have only learned in the last few years, after 15 years of bad habits and experiences. I also personally think it is better to not read theoretical works than to read poorly, in that pseudo-intellectual, "I got my black belt in karate in one year from the guy in the market", kind of way or the cadre-training group-think/guru-worshiping kind of way. But it is even better to recognise one's mistakes and change them, to develop good habits and learn the patience and seriousness needed to read well. The latter is a never-ending path and what matters is not getting somewhere, but the trip (to paraphrase the old Buddhists and Taoists.)

Typically, people in the Left (and this it shares in common with college classes) read in order to say that they have read something, to claim familiarity, to write articles for publication, to build a résumé. The typical procedure, for example, in starting a reading group, is to choose a large number of texts or sections of texts and to set a time limit on them. "We are going to read Hegel's Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Chapter 1 of Volume 1 of Capital, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, an article by Herbert Marcuse, a few chapters of Lukacs, a section from Raya Dunayevskaya's Marxism and Freedom, part of Adorno's Negative dialectic, part of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, some selections from Althusser and Negri's book on Spinoza, and a few other things. And we are going to read this in one year." Lest one think this is an exaggeration, it is basically what I was told about a reading group starting up at a bookstore, except that their list was longer. This method of reading is guaranteed to allow people who participate to say that they have read all of these people. It will not allow anyone to learn much of anything, however, if there is anything worth learning from these texts, which there most certainly is. How can we expect to learn by a) reading at a forced pace through some of the most complex and careful works of the last two hundred years? And b) how can we grasp what people are really getting at by reading fragments of whole texts, unless the work is itself superficial? c), I clearly do not subscribe to notions of reading now popular which argue that we can start anywhere and read in any order and read fragments of this or that, and still get something out of it. Some works can be usefully read in this fashion, but many others cannot. And even those which can be often require much more time and effort that the week or two allowed for the reading.

Other people read because the group they are in or connected to has started a study group, which may be focused around one or several texts. This normally progresses by people reading or pretending to read what they are assigned each week and the lead person from the group, who has generally already read all of the materials and decided on his/her interpretation, leads the group. This is what is known as 'indoctrination', not because the reading and analysis of the lead person might be good or bad, but because the structure of the group is such that one person or a few persons with a vast accumulation of knowledge of the particular books really aim at convincing the other readers of their interpretation. This process also tends to move too quickly. In the worst of cases, it is a rush to read a book a week (my experience in a Trotskyist group as a new recruit and with several other groups) so that one can display 'seriousness' in the desire to accumulate the necessary basics in order to go recruit people. In the best of cases, it is not so rushed and the material is interesting, but it pales in practice in comparison to the actual work of the person who is touted as the originating guru. The Johnson-Forrest Tendency reminds me of this, as Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee would spend hours on a few paragraphs, grappling with them. But this practice is not emulated by the organisations which developed afterwords. Rather, the originator is treated as a guru-genius whose learnings one should feel lucky to be able to grasp even partially. That a person might have to do the same level of arduous work is mouthed, but not practiced by the organisation because these too are merely recruitment and cadre training activities.

So within the Left we find two specific types of reading, one centred around being able to say that one has read something , i.e. to be fashionable or superior, and the other really oriented towards recruitment and cadre training. The latter, in its best forms, is somewhat preferable, at least in so far as it is possible to read deeply and seriously, and if one can keep one's own critical faculties in place, it can be a very exciting experience. However, the chances of remaining in such a situation for long with one's critical faculties intact is small. The refusal of study group hierarchy, the problem of asking awkward questions, the rejection of guru-ism and related problems will result in one's eventual banishment or one will lose one's critical faculties and become a well-trained drone (or a leader, if one has the 'talents' necessary for the control and manipulation of other people!).

Also, within the cadre-building tendency, it should be noted, is a strong tendency to only read the materials of the group and to treat everything else as 'academic nonsense' or to brush off the importance of reading the thinkers whose work is purportedly the foundation (say Marx or Lenin or some-such) because the Party literature is a faithful projection of those ideas into the future. Hopefully no one interested in libertarian communism has to face quite this problem, as it tends to be reserved for the Leninist and vanguardist groupings.

There is related problem among non-vanguardists though, which is to read other people's interpretations instead of the original. Not that this can be avoided, and some interpretations are often very helpful, but it should not be a replacement for the original work. Nor should we ever take the word of someone else. It is very hard to not trust comrades, whom we otherwise trust, with reading, but like all forms of true trust, distrust (constant questioning of presuppositions, of fundamentals, of grounds) is necessary. Critique which only extends to other people or other groups or only outside of one's social circle is at its heart utterly uncritical and its opposite is the cadre or guru mentality (which is not far from the fashion mentality, which simply does not want to be forced to commit to activity.)

So how to read?

Most importantly, slow down. Don't try to read for the sake of having finished a book or for having appropriated a political line. Good reading will not make one either fashionable or a particularly good cadre or worshiper.

Slowing down will result in reading fewer books, but possibly in getting much, much more out of them. Better fewer but better, to quote Lenin out of context. Remember, you are not an academic with a 'publish or perish' assembly-line imperative to earn your pay check (at least not here.)

Read the whole book or essay, where possible, and preferably in order the first time through. At least with some books, this is absolutely important. In my personal opinion, reading Capital, for example, in part or out of order is a mistake.

Use secondary material as an assistant, not as a truth-giver. If you can't figure something out, try referring to several interpretations, but make sure to use conflicting interpretations. Reading more than one take on a passage will help to keep you from just mouthing someone else's ideas. Where you do not have another person for critical confrontation, find a book or article that will help do that. I do not generally like Slavoj Zizek's politics or interpretations, but he is sufficiently thorough and substantial that reading him helps me out. In reading him, I have learned a lot, and that is good enough. Secondary texts in particular can be read piecemeal, when they are being used as an assistant, though some of them do stand out on their own as complete, powerful works.

Be a social reader. I cannot tell you how important this has been for me. Having a good reading partner has always made my reading far more substantial. Let's face it, not many people can do amazing intellectual labour in isolation. If you must read with more than one other person, stay under six people. Groups larger than that are rarely productive. Also, make sure that everyone is committed to an unfashionable, non-cadre reading style. If they want to read 15 books in a year, meeting every week, it ain't gonna work out because everyone will looking to validate their already-existing ideas. And that is what cadre-reading and fashion-reading have in common: they seek/tend to merely validate our already-existing ideas/conceptions/politics. Both are therefore the absence of critical thought.

Take notes. I don't just mean write down your own comments, either. Sometimes it helps a lot to completely write out whole sentences, paragraphs and sections.

Reading with another person or persons and taking notes makes a great combination because then you can read to each other. Work through material out loud, taking turns reading, taking notes and asking each other questions. I have also found that having a large sheet of paper, spread on a table (unlike sitting on the floor, sharing a table where everyone sits increases the level of concentration and seriousness enormously), where everyone can make spontaneous notes and write down other people's comments works really well in a social reading situation.

Stick to the author's words. Never, ever, start out commenting on a book by using language other than that used by the author. Stay within the strict confines of their words and concepts. Too often we get sloppy and start using out own terminology, which may not have the precise meanings or concepts of the author. I had this problem (and still do) with, among others, Antonio Negri's work, but in fact I found it to be a problem I had with everything I was reading. As I have disciplined myself to not do this, I get a lot more from people who I still do not necessarily like or agree with.

The biggest problem in sticking to the author's words is allowing one's political convictions to get in the way (and this is as true for Leftists as it is for liberals, reactionaries and conservatives) avoid overly politicised reading. Not everything worth reading is going to make a good flyer, validate your political position or give you a good slogan. It isn't supposed to and if you are reading for those purposes, congratulations, you are on your way to being a sloganeering ideologue or activist. The point, for me, is to find that unity of theory and practice, of thought and action, that is difficult and arduous, but also part and parcel of the total critique of capital, a critique that must be expressed in ideas and action.

Study history. Knowing history and the history of ideas will help to keep one from falling for tendencies to over-generalise and universalise ideas and concepts. Also, every worthwhile thinker owes a debt, of varying magnitude, to other thinkers. That's why we provided the tendency map.

Let your experiences come into play. If you can't see anything of your own life and experiences in what you are reading, then either you or the author has a problem. This does not mean sit and tell your reading partner(s) about every detail of your life, but to try and be open to the idea that the reading has something to tell you about yourself, including how you relate to the person(s) you are reading with, the dynamics of the group, and so on. Reading like this is not meant to be a sterile academic exercise, but more along the lines of Plato's idea that "The unexamined life is not worth living" and that the unity of theory and practice is a unity we can never assume we have.

No gurus or teachers. This is very important in social reading with one or several other people. It does not matter how much anyone has read if everyone takes what they are currently reading seriously and sticking to the text. Reading carefully and sticking to the text limits the ability of anyone to inject outside ideas that can be used to show 'superiority' in reading. Once you are aware of the difference, it becomes easy to see when someone is helping with informative comments and when someone is engaging in leader-ism. Such moves often reinforce patriarchal, class and racial divisions. Also, such guru-ism tends to make others wait for your comments. If you start acting like a guru, try shutting up and be open to demands that you come back to the text, keep your comments brief and relevant, etc.

No followers or submissives. Speak up and create your own space. If you can't or don't feel comfortable, fight to change it or get out. Do not punish yourself by staying in a reading situation that is not productive. The point is to bring together a body of relative equals in relation to a particular text. If you read carefully then you will have as much to say as anyone else. A group not made up of equals, in terms of commitment and willingness to make the effort, is a waste of time.

Set realistic objectives. As always, better to linger on a section than to move ahead when people do not feel clear or have more to say in it. Don't worry about how long you will take unless someone is pontificating or going off on long, irrelevant tangents. As long as the discussion is productively on the text, be courageous and patient: go slow. And don't set up too many pages to read between sessions. Know what each of you can realistically do. If you demand too many pages between sessions, people will feel obliged to speed through the reading and the discussion. Lower page expectations will reduce the feeling of not making headway.

If you get bored or are not reading enough, read other stuff. Novels, poetry, history, short stories, biographies, autobiographies and such are necessary components of a reading life and not all of them require the care accorded to explicitly theoretical works. You can read books on the Russian Revolution without being overly concerned with their theoretical content. Assume that anyone at this website is already going to be critical of a work on the Russian Revolution which, for example, never mentions the workers' struggles or their self-activity. Between the Revolutionary Reading Guide (RRG) and the historical works on the site and the bibliographies of the books in the RRG and the other, unlisted works by authors in the RRG, there is more than enough historical and biographical material to keep you busy. Try reading stuff from the period when the book you are reading was written.