On reader’s block

Occasionally I find myself amid stormy and difficult relationships with my sociological readings. During those dark times, I would struggle between carefully crafted lines, flip back and forth with a speed of 10 pages per hour, and return later only to find myself remember not a single word. There was a time I spent eight hours trying to summarize a thirty page paper on history of conversation analysis. Instead of devouring, I felt myself devoured by that merciless monster. I felt thoroughly alienated from the youthful lives that had been occupying library seats around me. In an ironical sense, I felt the kind of scholarly loneliness.

With regard to the infamous “writer’s block”, I name this phenomenon “readers’ block”. This painful experience is by no means unique to me. My supervisor used to tell me that her graduate students have this problem too. They would blatantly complain to her that they could not understand the readings. She, with the kindness of a mentor, would respond that this was due to their lack of background knowledge, not talent.

I suppose that for a graduate student in sociology, losing the ability to read is like the second most frightening nightmare – the first is losing the ability to write. Let’s be honest, there are not many professional technical skills left disposable to sociologists. How many student enter this filed, not as a march towards mastering sociological imagination, but as an escape from math and science? And how many times are sociologists bitterly criticized by statistician for using statistics in an incorrectly way? On hearing my transfer to sociology, the first thing that came out of my statistics professor’s mouth was:” Oops, then you have to read those gigantic books!”

My impression is that reading as a skill tend to be undervalued, especially when compared with writing. As one of my professor recalls her encounter with researchers in hard science: “we do experiments and complicated math, but you – you read.” Also to quote Hilma Wolitzer, a writer, those with talents become professional writer while those without become “much better readers”.

Yet reading and writing are nothing more than two sides of the same coin. After all, it is sociologists themselves who write those impossible readings for each other. Sociologists of our time write from what they have read, and what they write continue to trouble the next generation. Thus the difficulty of reading is closely intertwined with difficulty of writing. If only the power trio had produced less convoluted text!

I want then to posit the relation between writing, reading and codification. Writing is the process of codifying sociological knowledge into text, and reading is the process of translating the codified text back into knowledge. Thus any difficulty in these two processes reflects failure in codification or de-codification.

For example, we always say that ambiguity in writing is the ambiguity in thinking, but this only accounts part of the truth. Difficult text might result from either inscrutable knowledge that cannot be codified, or merely unfamiliarity with the skill of codification. In other words, sometimes we cannot write because we don’t know what to write, other times we cannot write simply because we don’t know how to put down what we know onto paper.

The same applies to reading. Failure in reading is failure in de-codification. Now that I recall, the problem with that forbidding paper I spent eight hours on, is that it requires a translation key that I do not have. It’s too “deep”. And in my supervisor’s words, I might lack the relevant background information. But there are other texts that are hard to read simply because the language they use are unnecessarily cumbersome. Some criticize that those pretentious texts are produced by scholars who seek to hide the secret that they don’t know anything at all. Because the knowledge to be codified is easy, they manipulate the codification process and make the resultant text hard.

I don’t want to go deeper into a discussion about professionalization of sociology that I cannot handle. In this post I only want to destigmatize my reader’s block by passing the responsibility to someone else, and rekindle my faith in being a good graduate student. After all, reading can be fun – as long as you don’t run into German or French writers.

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