‘How to Read Literature.’

J. Hillis Miller was part of the ‘Yale School,’ along with Paul de Man and Harold Bloom. Initially associated with Derrida, their strategy of deconstruction was little more than a way of prolonging the intellectual snobbery of American New Criticism, incisively critiqued in later years by Geoffrey Bennington and others.

From the J. Hillis Miller Reader comes this essay How To Read Literature, which I quite enjoyed for capturing the aporia or unresolvable contradiction between the urge to “read rapidly, allegro, in a dance of the eyes across the page,” and a wish to pause “over every key word or phrase [..] anxious not to let the text put anything over” you.

I am less convinced by the essay’s conclusion that, outside the academy at least, critical reading robs readers of the necessary mystification to maintain a love affair with literature. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “‘How to Read Literature.’

  1. I haven’t read the essay yet, but these days I find myself reading somewhere between the two extremes that Miller describes in the quote you included. I always keep a notebook with me while reading and am constantly jotting down passages and thoughts, but I don’t feel that this detracts from the mystifying effects of reading. Occasionally when I have a stack of particularly alluring books on stand-by, I have to catch myself from reading too fast due to anticipation. I feel like my mind can only absorb at a certain rate, though, and I don’t see the value in reading so quickly that a significant percentage is lost to run-off.

    I think it’s an interesting topic to consider. I have a GoodReads account and I’m always baffled by how quickly some people are reading several books at once. I know that people read at vastly different rates, but I am occasionally skeptical of how much some of them are absorbing from any given book. I do sometimes read multiple books, but in general this slows down my overall pace, and usually one of the books takes over as my primary focus.

    • My reading rate is remarkably consistent. Even years when I read several big books, there is clearly some natural calibration taking place whereby I am following those with smaller books. Sixty-five to eighty books a year is my pace. Like you I read with pencil in hand and either jot thoughts and passages straight into my notebook, or if I am travelling underline passages and transcribe them some time later.

  2. I really enjoyed this short essay – especially for this idea of the aporia of reading. I feel this tension strongly, but I often “choose” to read one way or another. Or first as an immersion and in a re-read break it into bits. That breaking into bits doesn’t always damage the initial immersion, depending on the book it can even heighten my appreciation. So seeing the “wizard” isn’t always a disappointment. And I do disagree with some of his more final statements, along the lines of “this has brought about the death of literature.” But perhaps it is an ideological difference, perhaps I’m not willing to cross too far over into slow reading and enjoy a middleground where the tension between slow reading and “dancing over a text” is at its highest.

    • Slowing myself down when reading has definitely made me less forgiving of badly constructed or cliched narrative. Given a good book I can easily get lost and find myself speeding up to reveal where a story is headed. Then I get snagged by a beautiful sentence, scribble it down, and consciously slow myself down again. Very occasionally I’ll rapidly read an average book just to follow an intriguing plot line.

  3. Thank you for linking to the essay! I wasn’t aware of it, but having skimmed through it right now i ca say it’s an excellent resource! I agree with the conclusion though – critical reading does rob the reader of the necessary mystification (at least it’s so with me ;))

    • My pleasure. I am pleased that you enjoyed it. I understand the demystifying effect, just haven’t experienced it yet, but then I think my critical reading skills have got a long way to develop.

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