Critical Readings: How I learned to stop worrying and love the book
Story | Justin Ong, Managing Editor
Photo | Serena Quay
Sometime in week five it occurred to me that I was in trouble. I was not enjoying what I read. Readings came and went like poorly-timed stage directions, and I went through the motions as instructed. How did it come to this?
Being stuck at Starbucks in the wee hours of the morning with three hundred pages of Virginia Woolf to plough through was not my idea of leisure. It didn’t seem like the sort of book I would pick up. But yet with the course I had chosen there was no other option. I already knew what genre of literature I loved and wouldn’t hesitate to read those in an instant. So why force myself through something I wasn’t familiar with? I found myself wondering many times this semester whether there was any way to enjoy these readings when approaching them with a critical eye. If the obscurity of the reading didn’t kill your passion, then the rigorous analysis would finish you off for sure. Besides, shouldn’t we only read the things that made us happy?
I stopped by the Yale-NUS Writers’ Center at the end of the week with a head full of these questions. I needed to find out if there was room for leisure reading and critical reading to coexist.
Professor Heidi Stalla, Associate Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS College, said that reading critically was akin to being a professional tennis player. “The moment I stopped playing [tennis] for fun, then it started to be for work. When that happens then leisure is something we stop pursuing.” I understood how she felt; just like how Sunday tennis became the hunt for sponsors and the pressure to perform, reading lost its charm when you had less than a week to plough through the assigned text, and a 1,500-word essay waiting at the end. When leisure reading and critical reading seem to set themselves as two different entities, how are we to reconcile the two?
On the outset certain judgments are already made on the value of a text. We gravitate towards familiarity and reject the unknown. Professor Robin Hemley, Director of the Writing Program at the College, said that “people are often resistant to something they have never encountered before … when someone says that they hate poetry, for instance, they are just not exposed to it.” I think of the times when I approached sociology with disdain, by virtue that it was just ‘not my thing’, that I was ‘better off reading something else’. Was it this disdain, rather than the actual reading, that denied me of enjoyment?
To conquer this initial discomfort might just be the whole point. “When I don’t understand something, rather than reject it, I have a conversation about it. That’s the whole nature of the classroom,” said Mr. Hemley. Our lack of understanding should not be an excuse to reject learning, but a basis for conversation and enquiry. And it is not to say that a vibrant class necessarily understands the readings, but rather, is brave enough to express their doubts. Even in our lack of enjoyment and understanding, a meaningful conversation can arise. After all, as Ms. Stalla said, “it is the author’s job to start a conversation, not for you to enjoy the text.”
Thus with the willingness to converse comes a chance to enjoy a text you would never have dreamed of picking up. “When you develop as a reader it’s like learning a different language,” said Mr. Hemley. “You’d derive a certain pleasure in understanding the text that you couldn’t do if you didn’t learn the language of the text.”
This “different language” may very well be the key to reconciling leisure and critical reading. To take on this language is the willingness to labor and learn, and the courage to ask when in doubt. When all’s said and done you are left with the immense satisfaction of persisting through a difficult text, and the additional leisure of beholding its meaning.
For sure, it won’t be easy. But that’s the whole point of progress.
The Yale-NUS Writers’ Center is open on weekdays from 1 pm to 6 pm. They host events that range from readings to writing workshops and late night writes. Check out their calendar of events here.
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