From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lectures (6g)—The Accidental Ethnographer (How to Read a Geil)

One year ago on Round and Square (1 August 2011)—Longevity Mountain: Regaining the Ancient Path
[a] Mountain reread RF
This is the longer, written version of a lecture I gave as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's bicentennial celebration on June 1, 2012. When I say "longer, written version," I mean just that. This is not a transcript of the talk, although it follows its direction in every way. What is posted here is the "talk" combined with all of the little details that would not have been possible...unless I spoke for six hours. In any case, it reflects my two years of work with the Geil archives at the Doylestown Historical Society, and owes a great deal to the friends and colleagues I have met there, who have made this research one of the most enjoyable archival pilgrimages of my life.
Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h

Yesterday's and today's posts compose an opinionated little essay on reading. Click below for the linked post.

So here is how I like to think about levels of engagement with the reading process. It's a lot like riding your bike around France, or lugging your book bag around campus all semester. It's about effort, strain, timing (The Scarlet Letter can seem like Ulysses if it comes late enough in the term), and experience. The latter is probably the most important quality of all—in cycling or reading. Just ask George Hincapie or Edmund Wilson. My categories:

          Uncategorized: One reading, often quickly.
          Fourth Category: One reading and possible return for more.
          Third Category: One or two readings.
          Second Category: Two readings, and possibly a third.
          First Category: Three readings—always three readings (maybe more later).
          Beyond Category: Three readings, followed by constant rereading.

[b] Varied TdF
So where does William Edgar Geil fit into this schema? He was certainly not very difficult to read, and I was still ambivalent about the book's importance. No one in my field had ever heard of him, after all. So why would I plan to read The Sacred 5 of China three times and take a full hour to ponder just the first five pages? Well, precisely because it was the only book ever written about a topic I had studied deeply for the past three years. Any sliver of content or argument would be like a gold nugget in the hydrofracking backwash. I had spent the equivalent of a year on the mountains by that time, and I was looking for anything that would deepen my knowledge. Geil's mountain book rose to "First Category" for me precisely because of its singularity.

This is not, in short, an overall quality rating—at least not in this case. The Tulsa, Oklahoma Community Library had removed it from the shelves, and it was clear that the book had not been in danger of seeing multiple reprints and new editions. It was exactly what I needed, though, and I continued to read. I just had one paragraph to go in the preface, and I knew that my pace would pick up from there. How did I know that? Experience. The rest of this reading strategy comes straight from the pages of Mortimer Adler's and Charles van Doren's How to Read a Book. It is fashionable (and has been since the 1940s) to make fun of Adler's lessons (one scamp even wrote a playful rejoinder entitled How to Read Two Books) but those reading lessons changed my life. I have been a multiple-reading zealot ever since. With The Sacred 5 of China, I had followed it to the letter. I "got to know" the book the previous day by looking at the illustrations, scanning the table of contents, studying the maps, and skimming the index. Adler calls this "pigeon-holing" a book, and I had taken that process to another level by making it part of my evening seminar. 

[c] Dead Sea Reread RF
Today, I was on to the next phase. Adler is clear (and absolutely correct) about one point. You cannot possibly go deeply into a complicated book—the jury was still out on Geil in this regard, but I was treating it that way—without getting all of the way through it first. You must, counsels Adler, work straight through the text, even if you do not fully comprehend every argument. This is the vital step that is required before you can really learn from any book. Yes, I am opinionated on this topic, and have had spirited arguments even with colleagues, who insist that carefully reading from page one is the way to go.


I believe in multiple readings with fire in my eyes, and have told it to classes since my very first day of teaching. You have to learn to "get through" a book the first time and then reread it. If the book is important enough (that is the real question, because most are not) this is the only way to proceed. You will notice that I leave little room for discussion in taking this stand. This is what I tell 'em:

All good reading is rereading; all good writing is rewriting. 

[d] Twist RF
So...o.k., I hear you say. If getting through the book the first time is the goal, why then did you spend an hour with the first five pages? Good question. Over the years, I have added one little twist to Adler's advice, and it has served me well. I have found that it pays to work carefully through the early pages before picking up the pace. If you don't, the whole thing can turn into a wordy garble, or like narrow bicycle tires on sticky pavement. If that happens, a second read may never happen, or it may be as confusing as the botched attempt at the first. It is sort of like sprinting up the foothills, only to weave, pant, and cough when you hit the steep slopes. 

By getting a thorough overview, followed by careful attention to the author's style in the early stages, the cadence stays strong and the reader powers to the summit. Those early pages are useful for developing a real sense of the author, her writing style, and various ways that subjects are engaged in the opening pages—teasing out their implications and getting to know the literary terrain. In other words, you acclimate in the early going, and actually gain momentum as the road veers upward. If you have ever ridden big hills, you know what I mean. It is the reason why I learned not to sprint down a slope in the hope of gaining momentum for the gradient on the other side. In fact, on training rides I often slow to almost a stop before starting the ascent—even if it is two, three, or more miles long. If you have never tried it, you might be surprised by how much riding (or reading) "within yourself" can change your performance.

I was just about done with the "slow phase." I had one more paragraph to go before Geil and I would turn our gazes to "Mt. Tai, Sacred Peak of the East" and the other four mountains. I had one more paragraph to go before I started to slip into the right gear and power to the top. These five pages had been a roller coaster thus far, and I had veered from admiration to dismay and back again (and again). It was hard to know how he would finish his little mountain-culture overview.

I turned the page.

Accidental 6a          Accidental 6b          Accidental 6c          Accidental 6d
Accidental 6e          Accidental 6f           Accidental 6g          Accidental 6h
[e] Readin' RF

1 comment:

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann