Wednesday, 31 October 2007

On reading and being
unable to read

It’s reading week. I always thought that was one of academia’s little jokes, an ironic gloss on what the rest of us call half-term. Either that or self-deluding pomposity. I certainly never used it for reading. Nor did the lecturers. They were either writing papers or chasing first year students. (Mostly, they caught them.)

Now I’m not so sure.

Last Friday afternoon, I found myself outside on the pavement, with the smokers. It was a damp Torrington Place afternoon. It was cold. I didn’t really know why I was there. I wasn’t even smoking. (I do occasionally.) I think maybe I’d intended to get a coffee, but I’m not sure. It was the 15-minute break between that day’s second and third sessions, between Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud Reading Seminar 6 (2.15–3.45pm) and Ferenczi 1 (4.00–5.30pm).

As the Freud seminar finished, I’d put on my coat, left my notes where they were, taken the lift to the ground floor and turnstiled myself out of the building with my student ID card. It was a purposeful journey, clearly. I knew it was the right thing to have done — or, at least, the thing I wanted to do. But it took me some time to work out what I was up to.

We — four or so of us on the course, males mostly — stood and talked, briefly, about the seminar that had just finished. It was on Freud’s theory of dreams. A couple of us said we just couldn’t agree with Freud’s idea that all dreams are wish fulfilments. There was something tentative about the way we said it. Later, I decided that could well have been because we were wondering if such open questioning of Freud so early in the course was a little presumptuous. A premature attack on the father of psychoanalysis even. (If I didn’t entertain such musings, I really wouldn’t be paying attention, would I.)
Then we talked about what we nearly always talk about when we talk about the course — the reading. It’s not just that there’s a lot of it, though there certainly is a lot of it. You can see for yourself, if you want — and get an idea of what some of it’s about, too.

I just counted it up. The preliminary reading totalled thousands — literally — of pages, including an 800-page Freud biography. (Don’t tell anyone, but I haven’t finished it yet.) There were a dozen or so other books, including one by one of the lecturers. I put that one to the top of my list. It was out of print. There were also details of the first term’s Freud reading and a gentle suggestion that we might like to start on it in advance. This listed 18 papers. The Interpretation Of Dreams alone is 627 pages, give or take a preface or ten.

Not that I was complaining. Or could complain. It was a challenge I’d gone looking for, not one that had come looking for me. It was just . . . well, a lot of reading. And it kept on coming. Since the course started, in late September, I have read two more whole books, chapters from another nine books and at least sixteen papers. I haven’t actually read every word of all of them, of course, but I’ve done my best.

Which is a lot better than the best I managed the first time at university. Having established in the first term that I could do very little reading and still get good grades, I took this as an opportunity to do no reading at all for the next two years.

Not that I didn’t do any reading. I did. Lots. A friend tells me I once told him that I did nothing at university except lie in bed, listening to Chuck Berry and reading Marx. This isn’t quite true. I also studied, for example, the complete works of Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Lou Reed, Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth David, Diane Arbus and Louis Althusser. I investigated the basement clubs, dancehalls and drink outlets of north London, by night mostly. I perfected my mental map of the tube network. And I conducted drug trials in which p=1 and there was no placebo control group. All in all, scarcely a waste of educational opportunities, surely.

But course reading. No, that I didn’t concern myself with — not until the last two months anyway when I crammed my way to a 2:2, much to the fury of some of my more diligent classmates. I really was a terrible student. I can’t remember going to a single lecture in the last year. I tell people that they tried to expel me twice but failed as I never once looked in my pigeon hole in the whole three years. I’ve told that story so many times that I’m no longer sure if it’s true or a joke I made up. (I know for sure the pigeon hole bit is true so maybe the rest is, too.)

Second time round, though, I’m not that snotty, contrary slack-a-bed. I’m turning up for lectures. I’m doing the reading. Now there’s a word: reading. It depends on what you mean by reading. I have looked at all the reading we’ve been given, honest. But have I actually read it all? No. Not for want of trying. I’ve worn out half a dozen highlighter pens. I’ve become a friend of the pre-dawn darkness, to be found on the sofa come breakfast time, still millimetering my way through Joseph Sandler’s Dimensions of Psychoanalysis or some such.

But I haven’t read it all. I’ve managed a lot of it, but not all of it. I don’t think any of us has, actually. I did what my daughter told me to do. (As a 2007 graduate, her advice has a relevance and quickness that my three-decade-old memories don’t.) Do what everyone else does, she said, read the introduction, the ending and skim the rest. Then she flew off to south America somewhere.

So I tried skimming but it didn’t work. There were too many unfamiliar notions and words — some of which were used in a specific, technical way that was new to me, some of which had been oddly translated from the original German and some of which, though seemingly in English almost certainly weren’t. Quickly and painfully, I discovered that you really can’t skim something you don’t know a good deal about. You can only effectively skim something you’re already familiar with. If you can’t, at a glance, separate the significant from the irrelevant, you’re left floundering. And floundering with words was something unfamiliar to me.

Like most writers, I’m one of life’s natural readers. Words were the way I found myself and my place in the world, from as soon as I could talk. I taught myself to read before I was four, from the letters on the Frigidaire in our Somerford Grove kitchen. I was a cornflake packet and sauce bottle reader.

As a journalist, I came to pride myself on being a quick study, capable of absorbing — and understanding — loads of material very rapidly. Then regurgitating it, fairly accurately. But this was something else. Not all of it, by any means, but enough of it to worry me. Regularly, I found myself in that uncomfortable place where you find yourself at the bottom of a page with only the scantiest notion of how you got there from the top. So you read it again. And sometimes it sticks. Or you turn the book upside down and try it that way. Sometimes that works, too. Sometimes, you go for a walk instead.

Sometimes, though, I even found myself thinking longingly of the blissful, easy hours I spent earlier this year making my way through a manual for MySQL — it’s a database software thing. And, eventually — on the way back from my afternoon jaunt with the pavement smokers — it was that memory which led me to the light. The first time I tried to read the MySQL manual, I decided that, appearances to the contrary, it had to have been written in Albanian. That was the only possible explanation of why I could make so little sense of it. But then, after a few months working with the software — or, to be precise, working with someone who was actually working with it — I made my way back to the manual. It still wasn’t exactly like reading the Frigidaire name plate but it made sense and I could follow it, in my fashion, if not my expert colleague’s.

So now I knew why I found myself on the pavement. I was there because I really, really needed a break from all those words I was struggling with and the way they filled that fifth floor seminar room till the air itself was looking to relocate somewhere less crowded. Some cold air and some secondhand smoke later, I was ready for Ferenczi 1. I hadn’t finished the reading, it’s true, but I’d read the intros, the outros and skimmed the rest. Good enough. That was the pass mark Winnicott set for mothers. Which is good enough for me.

And I’d learned what to do about the reading. Keep reading. Read and read again. Wait for the words to cohere. They will.

Now it’s reading week. So I’m reading, right? No. I’m writing. Maybe tomorrow. It is half-term after all.

In memoriam

Tony Soprano 1999–2007

The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night he rants and rages at the stars.

Vince Everett: It ain’t tactics, honey, it’s just the beast in me.