Saturday, 25 August 2012

Reading, Fast and Slow

A week or so ago I finished reading “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. There is much in it to recommend it but I can’t say that I enjoyed the read, which is to say that I found it disappointing. Admittedly I’d had very high hopes of what I would find in its pages and this is perhaps not the most favourable attitude to bring to bear upon any new experience, even if it comes highly recommended. Of course I’m sympathetic with the underlying premise and it is undoubtedly well researched and a rich source of ideas and references but ultimately I came away feeling little better armed with insights and arguments for the championship of craftsmanship than I’d felt when I picked it up.

No doubt, with greater patience, I could go back and furnish myself with a fuller repertoire of critical tools and examples, but this leads me to wonder what it was about the initial reading that couldn’t provide such things in the first place? Did I read it too quickly perhaps? (I’m a plodding reader at the best of times so I doubt it), is it, dare I say, a fault in craftsmanship on Sennett’s part or should the responsibility fall more squarely upon my own shoulders, on my readercraft?

Rather than rushing at an answer, perhaps it would be more interesting to take a brief detour via a discussion raised by Sennett in relation to IQ tests. Sennett points out that IQ tests are timed and he cautions that there are occasions when questions demand more consideration than a cursory, albeit correct, answer:

“In the spirit of craftsmanship you want to dwell on this problem, making it more specific, puzzling over it – but time is running out. You have to answer as many questions as you can to raise your score, so you guess and go on. Intuitive leaps that open up a problem are impossible to test using multiple-choice questions.”
“Invidious comparison of speed has distorted the measure of quality.”

Yesterday I chanced upon an almost opposing sentiment on the part of Friedrich Nietzsche:

 “’The ‘Plodders.’ –Persons slow of apprehension think that slowness forms part of knowledge.”

Sure, slowness would seem an unlikely contender as a component of knowledge, but conceived instead as ponderousness the complexion of the statement changes considerably, and whilst ponderousness may not be a part of knowledge either, few would disagree that it forms a venerable route towards it. Moreover, if slowness isn’t part of knowledge, logically speaking nor is rapidity (as Sennett wisely cautions). Ponderousness isn’t exactly slow but it demands whatever time is required. It will not be profitably hurried.

So, it’s not really a case of how fast or how slow you apprehend something that matters but how deeply you consider it, how thoroughly you weigh (ponder) what it has to offer. And this leads me back to The Craftsman.

To have gained the maximum from the book I would indeed have to had read it more closely, to have made more notes and perhaps even to have written my own summaries of the most salient passages. But it’s not a one way street, there is still a requirement that the craft of the reader is met by the craft of the author. If there is too great a disparity between these two forms of craftsmanship - or the purposes that underlie them - then the work of reading will never be as fully satisfying, pleasurable or edifying as might otherwise be the case.

"Admittedly, to practice reading as an art … requires one thing above all, and it is something which today more than ever has been thoroughly unlearnt … it is something for which one must be practically bovine and certainly not a ‘modern man’: that is to say, rumination…" — Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Genealogy of Morals."


James A said...

I shared your disappointment, Jim. Sennett's concern for craftsmanship does not extend to his own writing. Matthew Crawford's "The Case for Working with your Hands" and even Syed's "Bounce" may not be as erudite, but they do exemplify the craft of communication much better.

"The Craftsman" on the other hand, exemplifies a form of academic arrogance which lumbers the reader with the entire responsibility for understanding the text. That may be legitimate in advanced technical areas--but there is nothing in this book which is particularly difficult. It is just badly put together, and I blame the editors for lack of nerve in challenging Sennett--which is after all part of their craft.

J. Hamlyn said...

I couldn't agree more. I've not read "Bounce" but I thought "The Case for Working with your Hands" was both excellent - though I was a little less convinced by his arguments about the school of hard knocks.

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