One of first classes I went to as a graduate student was a Canadian historiography course. After the requisite introductions and review of the syllabus, course expectations, etc., the professor looked at us as explained he was going to teach us to “read without reading” because the only way to survive the massive reading load is figure out how to do this and master it. He then gave us each a book and fifteen minutes to figure out what it was about and present it to the class. There were 5 stunned MA students not quite sure what “read without reading” meant but still making an effort while wondering what kind of twisted test this was – and one PhD who seemed to be in on it because they killed the presentation fifteen minutes later. At the end of the class we were all a little stunned a professor had just an hour showing us how to read just enough to get gist of a book and actually encouraged us to regularly do this (in combination with good note taking) to make it out of grad school with some shred of sanity intact.
“Reading without reading” was a strange idea to wrap my brain around, even though doing it came easily, until one day a friend referred to “gutting a book.” The phrase made me thinking of many weekends fishing on the Red Deer River with my Poppy. For the record I was really bad at fishing because I was more interested in finding pretty rocks on the shore and trying (unsuccessfully) to skip stones – both activities led to reminders to pay attention to my rod and stop scaring the fish away. Despite limited interest in fishing as more than an excuse to add to my rock collection, I managed to catch fish and each time I watched in total awe as my Poppy expertly slit the trout down the middle, pulled out the entrails and left the fish ready for the barbecue, looking exactly like it had upon coming out of the water – except it was hollow and dead. So when my friend mentioned “gutting a book” I had a very vivid mental image of my Poppy crouched beside the river with a fishing rod beside him, book in one hand (a big hard cover like Stanley’s Birth of Western Canada), a knife in the other and pages floating down the river. I doubt anyone reading this has met my Poppy let alone gone fishing with him so you will have to trust me when I say this is very entertaining image and it made the “reading without reading” idea finally click. There was something about the violence common to gutting a fish and skimming a book that made “gutting” the perfect metaphor.
Each time I pick up a book and know there isn’t time to give it a deep reading part of me laments the necessity of reducing it down to only the most important and usable parts. It is the same feeling I would get right before the knife sliced down the middle of a fish deemed big enough to keep. Suddenly this thing that is so beautiful as a whole – book, fish, pumpkin, anything that can be gutted really – ceases to be of value as it is and is only worth what can be used immediately. Okay, there are books where gutting is the only way to get from cover to cover, but there are others where it feels wrong to read in 1.5 hours for the essentials because they are beautifully written, argued, and constructed that it would be a joy to read from cover to cover for all the details over an entire afternoon.
This week annoying emails from the library recalling books forced me to gut 4 books during SSHRC deadline week and I found
myself thinking about the the methodology of reading just to get it done while also learning the book well enough to recall it in
some detail at a later date. The conclusion I came to is this: To read without reading and still know what a book is about is a skill and I am glad Duncan McDowell makes a point of introducing his historiography classes to it. And I would not look at the activity the same without my friend Maureen sharing her gutting metaphor with me over coffee at Bridgehead. So as I read the piles of books that are comps knowing savoring a book is a luxury I don’t have, the image of gutting a book like it were a fish makes me smile. Much like gutting a fish it is not always pleasant, but it has to be done and there is a great satisfaction in finishing a book in under 2 hours that is much like catching the biggest fish of the day and watching others enjoy it for breakfast (I’m not a fan of fish).