Several years ago, I emailed several professors, inquiring about the possibility of pursuing grad school in philosophy. Two of the three gave me unqualified yes’; I’d been a pleasure in class, had done solid work and would likely find much joy the environment of a PhD program. A third responded with a lengthy email that could be boiled down to ‘no’, but could be expanded to include the economic dead-end that is pursuing the humanities. More painful was a lengthy explanation that I wasn’t cut out for it, couldn’t read and respond to texts with the level of precision and rigor that was demanded, and that I should instead pursue the more creative and synthetic writing they’d seen me do.
I think it’s safe to say that time has proven this professor correct, less because they were onto something in that moment and more because they were unwittingly in the business of predicting the future. In the last couple years, I’ve found myself increasingly dragged away from the close reading habits I developed through college that have left several books on my shelf stuffed with sticky notes and highlighter marks, and instead towards a reading-style that gets more read but gets less out of everything I read. In some ways, this has been a good lesson; not every book requires the same level of attentive detail, and it’s allowed me to get through lots of books I never would’ve finished otherwise, including a new type of book I barely read in college called the novel. What’s worrying to me is that I’ve struggled as of late to go back to the detailed reading when it’s called for. I have been reading, as of late, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology and Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, and the physical evidence of my engagement with all these texts is scant compared to what one finds when they open my copies of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology or even Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, which has underlined passages and marginal comments on nearly all of it’s 2,500 pages. Why is this the case?
Part of it is that I am trying to read more as of late, and so feel more pressure to simply get through the text, where I used to feel pressure to get out as much of it as I could, regardless of time commitment. Where I used to have a job and little else going on, I’m now an active party member and podcaster, the former of which is a substantial time commitment and the latter of which is extra reading on my to-read pile. I also am more ambitious with my reading schedule and research agenda, partly because I’ve been exposed to so much more in the last couple years, and also because my own intellectual projects have a much more dynamic scope. While these are good things, it also means that when I sit down with a new book, the sense of awe and wonder is already dulled a bit by the nagging memory of how quickly I need to get through it in order to get to the rest of my reading list.
Paired with this however is a deeper and sadder reason, and that is that I no longer feel any need to put so much effort into a text as I used to. I’m no longer tested on my understanding, and even when I go to the effort of wrestling with a text in detail, few seem to take much notice. The most public place my knowledge is on display is in podcasts, and there I’m doing none of the heavy lifting; I simply have to note the points of interest in the text, but I don’t have to understand them, which further encourages simply getting through the text rather than wrestling with it. I don’t think any of my episodes would be improved by authors asking if I understood it, but I do worry that doing these podcasts might be helping reify some less rigorous reading habits.
Compounding all of this is my social environment. I was alone (and often lonely) before the pandemic started, but the problem goes deeper than being locked indoors. In college I was surrounded by students and professors all wrestling through texts together; participating in such a community means putting in the work, doing the reading and showing up with notes prepared. Without something along those lines, and with most people around me hardly reading anything at all, it’s yet another reason the effort no longer feels justified. The occasional attempts to talk to people about books have generally been disappointing. Even within activist circles I’ve found myself sadly disappointed in the attitudes on display. Capital is a hard read, and I certainly don’t expect everyone to read it, but it would’ve been nice if people had responded to my having read it with a question about it, rather than telling me that’s a bad place to start with Marx, and recommending a few of his pamphlets instead.
All this is not to say it’s impossible to read rigorously outside of academia, but it’s becoming clear to me that my environment over the last few years has made it increasingly hard to justify putting much effort into big and difficult books. There is no consequence for skimming, and no reward for patience. Attempts to tackle something difficult are ignored or even discouraged. And so in all this, it makes sense to me that I might ease up a bit, only to eventually forget the hard-earned habits of my college days. Returning to my critical professor mentioned at the beginning, what’s sad is not that they were right, but that they pushed me towards a path where they would eventually become right. Shortly after that email, I struggled with a severe psychotic break which would demand a long road to recovery, more or less permanently cutting off my ability to try and change course, at least for the foreseeable future. I fear I’ve gone too far down this path to regain my old abilities, in the same way my old athletic prowess is probably never coming back. I’m stuck in an adulthood I didn’t and don’t want, alone and without an off-ramp in sight, to say nothing of a future worth anticipating. That one book or those essays I wrote were solid, but they’ll never be as good as the one I could have written, that one’s on an entirely different route.
This is all troubling, to say the least. There’s nothing wrong with being unrigorous in one’s reading and thinking; most people are, and they get along just fine. What’s troubling to me is that I may lead a life of intellectual and emotional stagnation, one in which this is as far as I get as a person. Thinking back, all my biggest periods of personal growth were accompanied by a book (or several), and hours of dissecting difficult passages over the course of weeks and months, my brain literally rewiring itself as it tried to digest what it was consuming. I might be reaching more people nowadays via podcasts, and doing more good as an activist, but neither of these have given me any indication of who I am in the same way reading once did, nor any way of thinking about who I can or want to be.
Am I bitter? Yes, but not for the reasons one might expect. That professor was the child of a professor, grew up in and has spent their entire life in academia, surrounded by other people who read, where challenging yourself with a difficult book is the norm. I don’t think they or many other people in academia realize that maintaining an intellectual vigilance, a life of the mind, is that much harder when it is a personal hobby attached to an unrelated life, like some awkward appendage, rather than an integrated part of your life and social surroundings. I’m not bitter that they didn’t understand that; how could they? I’m more bitter and frustrated that I’ve spent the last few years on the outside looking in, and at this point am unsure I could ever fit in. And perhaps even more than that, I’m bitter that there’s an inside and outside here at all.