Friday, April 21, 2017

Reading sf versus reading literary realism

So, I'm reading a fun, if fannish, book about books by Jo Walton (an accomplished sf writer herself), and she made an intriguing remark.

She explains that she once had an on-line argument about whether a Anthony Trollope novel should have footnotes. The "for" crowd argued that Trollope's readers had a lot of basic cultural information that modern readers simply lack. Walton took the "against" position, and her reasons -- this is the interesting part -- had to do with her reading Trollope as she would science fiction. Science fiction, for example, often inserts crazy things into its stories, and the readers are simply expected to figure things from context clues or, just as likely, to continue reading without knowing what a retro-laser flibbertigibbet is.

Since I grew up on sf and fantasy (mostly fantasy), I know exactly what Walton means. I picked up that kind of reading habit with my mother's milk, so to speak. If something confuses you in a text, just plow forward recklessly -- it'll make sense eventually.

The danger, though, is that such a reading habit is gloriously awful for encouraging critical thinking. I used to obsess about this observation after my M.A. program, when I was spurred to endless self-reflection by the fact that my hard work didn't translate into a corresponding level of academic success. If you run into something confusing in science fiction, just plow forward. If you run into something confusing in Derrida or Foucault, though, plowing forward may not always be the best idea. All readers have a tendency to skip or skim; only inexperienced readers, for example, read every word in a sentence. When you run into a dense passage, the same principle applies -- sometimes it's easier to just skim or skip it, and this tendency actually corresponds to some good advice graduate students are often given about "it's impossible to read everything closely, so be selective."

Still, that tendency to skip or forge forward can be damaging. I think I"m especially aware of this about my teen-aged reading self, when -- I realize now -- I was extremely bad at critical thinking and the close reading of texts (both being skills which are acquired rather than in-born). Life is happier now, of course, but I wonder if a pedantic love of footnotes or reading a text like a scholar might not be a really good thing at times.

No comments:

Post a Comment