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Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading generously

When I was a graduate student in comparative literature, I had the good fortune of having a popular, older professor in his last semester of teaching. The course was a seminar on Renaissance poetry. In the decade or so before my studies began there, the comp lit department had undergone intense internal strife over methods of interpretation, and particularly the pervasive influence of deconstructionism at that time.

 This particular professor, himself no deconstructionist, took a moment at the end of his last class of his last semester of teaching, after a long and accomplished career, to urge us to do one thing as we went forward in our careers: read generously. We are taught from a very young age to read critically, of course, and he insisted that there is nothing wrong with this. But, he mourned, there is such a spirit of skepticism toward the text that now dominates our discourse. We are encouraged to take it to task, tear it apart, read it against the grain at every possible turn. There is a place for this, no doubt, he said, but don’t forget how to read with a spirit of generosity toward the text. Try to see what it is saying to you; accept it on its own terms, if only to strengthen your own critique. It is nearly impossible to learn anything from a text if you are not willing to read it in this spirit.

This has always stuck with me. Despite my considerable sympathy with the school of interpretation that this particular professor was critiquing, I have returned to these sentiments at many points in my career – a career which obviously strayed (at least somewhat) from a predominant occupation with the interpretation of literary texts – and I have always found that they hold up. I have tried to apply them to cases, scholarship – everything. I think it not only makes us better critics and scholars to read generously – I would even venture to say that we owe it, almost as an ethical responsibility, to our colleagues and our readers. Is it possible not only to read critically but also, at the same time, to read generously?

Posted by Jessie Hill on January 17, 2011 at 08:39 PM | Permalink


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This is a wonderful reminder to all of us. I agree with bearing that the blogosphere could use a dose of the same sentiment -- generosity as we write blog posts and as we comment on them. Write and read generously!

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Jan 20, 2011 7:52:55 PM

I love the turn of phrase for what you're proposing (or, I suppose, for what the old prof was proposing) and will be using it. Along with "listening generously." The blogosphere could use it.

(Like the first comment too, from Mr. O'Donnell. I realize that "charitably" could substitute for "generously" but who understands charity in this day and age?)

Posted by: bearing | Jan 18, 2011 8:46:53 AM

For lawyers in particular, reading generously is a way of avoiding what we used to call "drinking your own bathwater." A principled empathy (i.e., one that you take on as a matter of principle when your instincts are otherwise) is critical to completing a negotiation, assessing one's own position in litigation, or anticipating the other side's arguments.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 18, 2011 6:20:25 AM

I would think the norm (is?) should be a "principle of charity" as we say in philosophy (and rhetoric) prior to practice of any deconstructionist critique (I'm still not quite sure what that is) or a hermeneutic of suspicion. In philosophy at least, this can entail the reader's re-formulation of an argument in stronger terms than the original or in a way unanticipated by the author. One frequently finds, however, performance anxiety and unbridled ambition combining in a premature "critique" that ends up saying more about the critic than the work-at-hand. Of course some folks are just downright nasty or possessed of an irritable dispostion or bewitched by some belief or ideology that precludes the possibility of any charitable reading of a text (I've thought this applies to some extent, for example, to Frederick Crews' reading of Freud).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 17, 2011 9:13:18 PM

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