Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

How scholars read

It is impossible to keep track of all the books being produced today, explaining the growth of academic speed-reading, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I remember a famous saying by a French critic. “I never read a book I criticise,” he said, “as this might influence my judgement.”

Some 25 years ago, a brilliant French PhD candidate strongly recommended two books, a novel and a scientific essay, to me. I trusted her judgement, so I bought the books, and they were indeed interesting. But I found one or two arguments problematic, and I wanted to engage in a discussion with my friend. She had not “really read them”, she quickly admitted. She knew enough to tell me the main points developed by the writers, but she had only given an hour to each book. She could not really elaborate on the authors’ main points.

I discussed this story with one of my closest friends, the philosopher Gil Delannoi. “Yes, students learn techniques that enable them to read quickly,” he said. “This is sad, but it is necessary. Too many books are being produced, and it is simply impossible to keep track of all of them. Of course this is not serious reading, but it does mean that they can discern which books deserve better treatment.”

Gil and another friend, professor Philippe Raynaud, did not accept this. They at least kept on reading “seriously” with pens in hand, taking notes, checking points, and so on. Their speed was impressive. They were and remain able to accurately sum up a book’s thesis, its strong points, and its weaknesses. They are flexible enough to enter the author’s mind, though this agility does not mean that they do not have very strong preferences.

In Egypt, the critic Nabil Abdel-Fattah also has this talent. I use the term “talent” on purpose because I think practice and self-discipline are necessary in order to master the art of reading, even if they are not enough. These three men have never distorted a book’s argument to my knowledge.

There are brilliant academics without this gift. One of the very best political scientists I have ever met often told me that an author had developed a thesis that “has its plusses and minuses”. His discussion of the thesis was fascinating, and I learnt a lot from listening to him. However, there was a snag: more often than not the author of the book in question had not said what the man said he had. The political scientist in question had a brilliant mind, but an exceedingly febrile one. He tended to mix a book’s thesis and arguments with his own reactions. In other words, at some point he unconsciously stopped reading and started reasoning on his own.

At the beginning of my career, he always commented on my writings, giving me credit for brilliant ideas that had never occurred to me. I understood that what he said were logical developments of my own ideas, going deeper than they did, but I did not go so far myself at that time. I was lucky he was fond of me. When he did not like somebody, he would caricature what they had said. Some small and most probably unconscious changes in the original formulations did the job.

I also know colleagues who are neither smart nor original but are able to understand what they read and to correctly sum it up. If they do not understand what they read, they will honestly say so. Such men are often excellent teachers.

During the defence of my doctoral thesis, two members of the jury said that “your bibliography has one remarkable feature. From what you write, it is clear that you have really read the books mentioned in it.” I was surprised by this, but I was told that reading the books in the bibliography was no longer a prerequisite. PhD candidates in France go to databases, enter keywords, copy out the results, and only read a sample of the books they find. They do not have much choice, as there is too much material and too little time.

Moreover, some jury members become angry if a book they consider to be essential is not mentioned by the candidate. I had this problem during my dissertation for my Masters (DEA) thesis. I dared not to mention the great French orientalist Jacques Berque, considering him to be irrelevant to my subject. After a heated discussion, I was told that I was not Raymond Aron, the great liberal philosopher. “Aron has the right to select his interlocutors. As a young candidate, when you study Egypt’s history you have to discuss Berque, or at least to tell us why you decide to ignore him.”

One of my friends privately told me that he was fed up reading PhD theses that include dozens of pages of bibliography and mention books that obviously were neither read nor used. “Historians are the world champions of this new trend,” he said, adding that he considered philosophers to be the last to avoid such procedures. I cannot confirm or deny what he said.

How do I myself read? I know that I am febrile, and I know that I have to get rid of the tendency to let my thoughts interfere with what the books are trying to say. I must first of all try to hear the author and keep my own reactions under control. This does not mean being passive. This is impossible: a reader is not a TV viewer, and he or she is necessarily active. But this activity should not be blinding or deafening. If I feel I have been too on edge when reading a book, I read it twice.

I enjoy revisiting books that have impressed me. A new visit can leave you disappointed, if the book is not as smart as you thought it was. Or it can impress you, as you discover treasures in it you missed the first time round. Another fascinating experience is “reading for translating”, but I do not have enough experience to describe it.

I must confess that I have developed a strange habit. I always read many books at the same time. Sometimes, too often for my taste, I’m unable to finish the books I am reading. Reading many books simultaneously is sometimes necessary when one is preparing a lecture or studying a historical episode. Sometimes it is simply a matter of psychology. One book enables me to escape another’s charm or tediousness.

The inability to finish books is unfortunately due to a scholar’s professional obligations, especially if he specialises in many topics. The clock and the agenda force him to “adjourn” them until later.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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