Henry Curtis: The Problem with Reading

10 minute read


In the preface of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein famously writes:

“How far my efforts agree with those of other philosophers I will not decide. Indeed what I have here written makes no claim to novelty in points of detail; and therefore I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another.” (Ogden Translation)

On the face of it this is perhaps one of the most anti-scholarly disclaimers an author could write. Wittgenstein is essentially relieving himself of one of the key responsibilities held by any individual who produces written work - the task of determining the ways in which the work is original, and the ways in which it is a restatement of what has come before. The author’s duty to perform this undertaking, which should in no way be minimized as a fraction of the total labor of writing, requires more than just the author’s time. It also requires them to engage with an existing literature whose focus is deeply similar to that of the work the author is attempting to produce. This is as much the case for one writing fiction as it is for one writing philosophy - a story I write must not share the plot of previous stories, a poem I write must not bear too much similarity to poems written previously, and so on. And in order to fulfill this obligation, I must read - I must, in the case of philosophy, survey positions held in other texts, and frame mine in such a way that it does not overlap so much as to make it effectively worthless. In the case of fiction, I must read to preserve the prospect that there will be an originality to my voice.

Now this situation gives rise to a somewhat puzzling state of affairs. Perhaps it is a predicament, I certainly feel it as a predicament, though there are certainly those who would not think of it as such. The situation is this - in order to begin writing, one must read. But not just anything! No, one must read texts that are in nature similar to the work one intends to write. Yet the work itself has not been written, and in many cases it has not even been started. So the latent work must already be determined to such a degree that a neighborhood of similar works can be scouted for commonalities, yet must also be undetermined in virtue of not having been completed. Invariably, the similar works that are read will have an effect on the work that is ultimately produced, an effect beyond the simple negation of certain potential features of the new work that were found in the old works. These older works, whether they be the oeuvre of a single author, the literary tradition of a country, or even works the author themself has previously written, will set not only a negative but also a positive expectation for what must appear in the author’s future creations. So the preparatory act of reading, originally intended as a prophylactic against derivation, is in fact a double-edged sword whose backwards facing blade is the immanent anxiety induced by the awareness of not only a measure against which one is to be held, but also of an external force capable of molding the author’s psyche. This is the case even if the author finds that nothing they wish to say has been said before. The standard for what they are attempting to write has been laid bare, as an obstacle they must surmount - an obstacle that before reading, would not have been a hindrance. And the originality of voice they were seeking to preserve by engaging in the caution of reading is now ironically challenged by the potentially unconscious influence of other writers.

None of this is really new. The common view is that reading is liberating, and in the deepest sense it is. But most will realize the myriad ways in which reading can serve as an act of restraint as well. The text, as imposing a figure in the life of a poet as in that of a scholar, evokes terror by trapping the author between the twin monstrosities of the past and the future - the text always precedes the author, preforming their conception of literary style before the author has a chance to exert any volition , and yet always comes after the author, as something the author is burdened with eventually producing. Just as any attempt to isolate the present merely gives us an image of the past, so any attempt on the part of the author to isolate themselves will simply give a fading image of those works out of which the author has constructed, perhaps unwittingly, their literary identity. The future is no better - any attempt to capture it in the understanding simply reveals a possible rearrangement of things found in the past, just as any attempt by the author to imagine their future text is fated to reveal nothing but a tapestry of inherited influence. I would guess that anyone who has written and read, and read and written, will not only understand the problematic I have outlined but will have experienced it as well.

So if the compulsion to read prior to writing entraps authors in a claustrophobic matrix of predetermining literary objects and gestures, what recourse is there for self-defense? How can the author preserve their own identity and originality, when the primary method of ensuring originality itself forces the author to confront texts so similar to their own that the sense they had of their own work, the direction plotted in their mind, gets irrevocably disrupted? The answer I propose is that we must emphatically and consciously reject the mandate that specific acts of reading must precede specific acts of writing, on the grounds that what this really leads to is specific acts of reading prefiguring all acts of writing.

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying we should not read, nor that originality can emerge sui generis in the mind of an author. Naturally, writing is always generally dependent on reading, insofar as every author’s sense of what they should write is shaped by what they have read. Any attempt to fight this brute fact would be akin to arguing that people should not feel pain when they are struck. The error in the argument would be that it was made in the first place. What I am challenging, however, is a specific expectation: that a responsible author must, in order to ensure that they are properly situated in their literary/scholarly field, consult work similar to the work they are attempting to produce. If the point of this expectation is to preserve the possibility of originality, then it must be judged on the grounds of whether it is successful in that specific respect. This practice, as I have implied, functions to hinder originality at least as much as to serve as a condition for its emergence. It takes authors whose ideas are just beginning to form, and compels them to take account of the products of already formed ideas - ideas whose power, in virtue of having been passed through the gauntlet of creation, will in almost every case overshadow their own nascent ideas. These authors will struggle immensely to overcome the pressure placed on them by an unnecessary encounter they were told that as an author they had to endure. Typically they will fail. (What is perhaps most troubling is how often they will not even realize they have failed.) This stops the author from ascending to a truly vibrant state of imaginative actualization, and as a pragmatic point it is entirely justified for the author to rebel, to refuse the deal.

And so we return to my proposal, that specific acts of writing do not need to be preceded by specific acts of reading. It should be clear now what this means. The author will no doubt be inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by what they have read, but as soon as the notion of an original work comes before them, their first instinct need not be to read work that is similar. If they want to, that is understandable, and may even be beneficial. But it does not come without risks, and it should be not be seen as mandatory nor as an obligation that, if unmet, forces one to necessarily lose authorial credibility.

Before I finish, there is one more thing I should say. The situation here has only been presented theoretically, and my account must be dually problematized. On the one hand, the paradigm presupposed in this essay, wherein present artistic creation is limited by anterior artistic creation, might very well be the product of a contingent mode of production whose goal is to treat art as property and in so doing place constraints on art that make its transmission and reproduction possible within a market oriented framework. That is to say, the view that I must be concerned at all with what comes before me artistically, and the subsequent neurotic fixation on self-differentiation, might only emerge when the originality of art is at its core an economic anti-inflationary measure. If this is the case, perhaps it is misguided for me to have treated the problems that consequently arise as intrinsic to art and authorship, when really these are problems to be addressed in a political manner. So let me say here - this problem is a political one. But quite a bit has already been said about art and politics, and I wouldn’t want to add on too much, since I am afflicted by the very neurosis I criticized three sentences ago. Hopefully what I say here can serve as an addendum to existing and future political criticism.

The second problem is similar. In treating the problematic as theoretical, it may appear that I have eternalized it, and given the impression that it is as pressing for us as it was for previous generations. It is not. It’s worse for us. The sheer volume of work produced today, which in virtue of tremendous gains in global literacy, education, and communication is much higher than it has ever been, means that for any work being written today, the set of work similar enough to be read for comparison is not only expanding in number, but narrowing in scope and similarity. This narrowing does nothing but add to the claustrophobic pressure alluded to previously, a pressure which binds the author to a limited conception of what they can write - a conception limited by standards of quality previously set, and limited by a newly formed understanding of what it is they are supposed to be writing. The problematic outlined in this paper, then, is a particular pressing problem for those of us alive today, thinking of beginning to write in the near future. And therefore, the solution, and its efficacy, become increasingly important as well.

When Wittgenstein claimed that he did not care if what he wrote had been written by another, he must have known that certain readers would have immediately prejudged the nature of his intent. No doubt the most pathetic among them would have written him off as arrogant, by which they would have meant that he was insufficiently willing to restrain his creative impulse in favor of prostrating himself before a tradition that, simply because it came before, might have had the strength and immensity to destroy him. Instead, he chose to ignore it, and to subsequently ignore the standards it would have supplied and the influence it would have established. In this he came to stake out his original position, and perhaps he could have done it no other way. Are we to chastise him, to hold that his success was in every sense in spite of his failure to engage? I think such a view would fundamentally misunderstand the dangers inherent in reading. My immediate hunch is that it is a symptom of not taking reading seriously. Either way, we must refuse any compulsion that would prevent a figure such as Wittgenstein from adopting the method most conducive to the activation of their creative impulse, and if that means occasionally not reading, then I stand behind it.