Learning to read again

Oh boy, another process piece!  Said absolutely no one, but hey!  Something something my blog my rules something something.  I’m running on 6 hours’ sleep and the dreams of children right now (assuming here that “dreams of children” is strong coffee) following a late night in which I struggled to put words together in lines on a screen.  I was sending my advisor a write-up about books on my media studies list in the vein of otaku studies and finding it difficult to say much of anything cogent.  In my last write-up, I felt like I was able to string together a pretty good line of thinking, but partly this may have been due to the fact that all four books (I included Anne Allison’s book along with the three in that post) were talking about very similar things in very similar ways.  This time, despite all the books being about “otaku,” it felt like I was trying to pull together some very disparate work.  I think perhaps my difficulties also sprang from a certain failure to follow my own reading methodology, so I’m going to lay that out here, partly as a reminder to myself, and partly in the hopes that other people will find it useful.  Here goes!

Unlike assembling one’s reading lists, HOW to read is something most people seem ready to teach you.  It basically boils down to some version of the following:

  1. Don’t read cover-to-cover
  2. Use book reviews liberally
  3. Read the introduction and most useful-sounding one or two chapters
  4. Take notes
  5. Move on

It’s a singularly frustrating method for me, since I’m a bit of a completionist (I could never finish Final Fantasy X-2 because I was too obsessed with getting 100%), but it can’t really be avoided in the kinds of timetables that get set for exams.  In terms of quickly mastering the overall shape of a field, though, it’s really all one needs.  Even the best books aren’t earth-shattering for every single page, and the contributions each makes to its respective fields are probably contained within a chapter or two.  Plus, reading in this generalized way has helped me see books as single arguments, whereas before I tended to get overwhelmed in each chapter’s minutiae and lost sight of the larger moves the authors were trying to make.  The vantage point afforded by “wide-angle” reading helps me see those broader interventions more clearly.  To make a metaphorical riff on what little I remember of high school calculus, it’s like taking the derivative of a book: you’re not trying to analyze the fine details of each chapter’s argument in your field exams; you’re looking at the broader arc those arguments trace when they’re put together in the course of a book.

This doesn’t mean that one CAN’T dig in to individual books, just that deep reading really ought to be put off until after the exams.  I keep telling myself as I read through things that there will be time to come back and really drill down into arguments that seem promising (or at least productively problematic) for me.  But the time for that is when I’m making my own arguments in a dissertation, not when I’m trying to quickly absorb all of what’s been said before me.  In addition to that, there are also books that are worth reading in their entirety for exams, simply because they are central to one’s chosen field.  Lamarre’s book was like that for me, as was Azuma’s.  The thing about those, though, is that I had already read them, and thus, again, didn’t need to plow through every page of them.  In short, exam reading is different from the kinds of reading I’d done before.  There is no cookie for pulling out quote after quote and dissecting the author’s argument down to the level of the sentence, of the individual word.  One must read quickly, broadly, and using all available resources.

So how did I fail in reading these otaku books?  Well partly it was through a confluence of non-standard styles (i.e. things other than monographs) that got included.  Azuma’s book was the only monograph on there.  After that was Galbraith and Christodoulou’s photo book, Figal’s journal article, and an edited volume from Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji that I might review here sometime later.  In other words, these weren’t works that were making traditional arguments or contributions to their fields, and so it was difficult to talk about them in that way.  The other failing is that I didn’t read reviews.  For one, there aren’t any reviews for Figal’s article, but I didn’t look up any reviews of Galbraith’s book, either.  As a result, I had on blinders to a degree, and this was reflected in my inability to talk about these books in broad terms.  I flailed about, talking about the pathologization of the otaku that I believe I mentioned in my review of Azuma, but it really felt like I was spinning my tires.  My advice is therefore: make a methodology, and stick to it!  I’m going to try to follow my own advice better, and we’ll see if it results in a better write-up next time.


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