We are reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life in freshman composition this semester. A student the other day challenged my insistence that one needs to understand the meanings of key words and concepts to understand a writer's work. He had gotten the gist of the assigned chapter without knowing the meanings of the words I'd brought to the class's attention, he said, and wasn't that all that mattered, after all?
Of course, we all read books and articles with words unfamiliar to us, and we don't necessarily sit with dictionaries at our elbows. We learn much by context, and "sort of" know many words we might be unable to define articulately at a moment's notice.
But the comment struck me, still, as somehow wrong; it's not about learning from context but about getting the gist of something without attention to detail. My first reaction thus was simple: "But this isn't casual reading to get the gist of things -- this is reading for the purpose of study." The job of the student is not to be casual; it is to be intense, focused, detailed, desirous of learning all one can. Casual reading lends itself to casual learning -- or, more likely, no real learning at all. That may be fine in its place, but is its place the readings assigned in a college classroom?
But the more I've considered it, the more I'm convinced that the real issue lies still deeper.
I am not in the least opposed to casual reading. (After all, I read detective novels all summer.) But how much of our reading should be merely casual; how often is the "gist of things" enough? And, in fact, if one does not know the meanings of key words, images, concepts, how is it possible to know if one has actually gotten the "gist of it" and not misunderstood altogether, reading oneself instead of the writer, as we so often tend to do?
And if the reading is for some purpose beyond relaxation, why would the mere gist of things satisfy? It isn't the gist of something that challenges and changes us -- the depth and profundity, the compelling force, of the idea lies in the careful building of detail to drive it home. Otherwise, why not just say "writing helps me discover what I think" and skip the first several paragraphs of The Writing Life altogether, condense the whole chapter into one paragraph, the book into a short monograph?
The gist of things often makes me shrug, or yawn. I very likely already knew it, or, if not, I find it mildly interesting, or a little odd, or, perhaps, "stupid" or "worthless." However, when I attend to the details of a well-crafted work, I find that the idea may be truly powerful, compelling, even life-changing -- or, perhaps, truly horrific, to be rejected and actively battled. But never "mere," never casual, never mundane . . . not when I attend. And how can I attend if I have no idea what some of the key images, words, concepts mean?
When I think of the time and energy Dillard must have poured into this book, searching for the exact metaphors, the most precise words placed in syntax painstakingly created to carry her meaning, I wish to honor her by attending to the work as she did herself. Literary critic F. R. Leavis likens the good reader to "the ideal executant musician, the one who, knowing it rests with him to re-create in obedience to what lies in black print on the white sheet in front of him, devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness, intuition, and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived."
I want my students not to be satisfied with the gist of things. I want them to be challenged, to challenge themselves. I want them to find ideas compelling and never casual, to become so well-read, so familiar with words and ideas, that even casual reading will no longer be truly casual, even when it seems to be, because the heart takes in depths of which the mind may not be consciously aware. (Those detective novels make me think about justice, love, betrayal . . .)
And here I find myself back in sympathy with Dillard, as I often am, when she says of her writing students after one of her passionate rants about what it takes to be committed to writing as a career: "They thought I was raving again. It's just as well."