[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Lambek as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Michael is Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His recent publications include “The Interpretation of Lives or Life as Interpretation: Cohabiting with Spirits in the Malagasy World” (American Ethnologist, 2014 41(3): 491-503) and A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (edited with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell), out in paper in fall 2015. The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value (University of Chicago Press) will also appear in the fall. For the University of Toronto Press, he edits the Anthropological Horizons series in ethnography.]
Instructors on the frontlines report that undergraduate grades are falling into a bimodal distribution rather than the comfortable old bell curve. The majority do poorly, it is said, because they do not know how to write. I suggest the source of the problem lies one step behind writing, in reading.
Writing presupposes reading. To write one has to know how to read and to write well one has to read well. Whether or not we write in order to be read, as Mary Murrell asked in her posting, at the minimum we are our own first readers. We read in order to own our writing, to confirm and assert it is ours, that it is what we want to say and the best way we know how to say it. Even before the copy edit and the proofing, we read what we write; reading is part of the very technique of writing. I am reading these lines as I write them.
The relation of this function of reading internal to the practice of writing has changed over time. Word processors enable us to revise with ease. We read and reread our work in progress, write and rewrite, cut and paste with abandon. Writing with a word processor has become a different skill than it was with a typewriter or a ballpoint pen. And before those inventions, the writer with ink and pen or brush had to know exactly what she wanted to say and how to say it before she put it to paper or parchment. Space too was limited—the end of a page imposing the same tyranny as the boxes with fixed character limits on recommendation forms.
As the allusion to calligraphy suggests, writing is an art. Anyone trying to write—a letter, novel, dissertation, poem, or ethnography—knows that it is a skill to be cultivated, and learned through the sheer doing. In part, this cultivation occurs by means of reading and it is thereby not fully deliberate or self-conscious. The fact of intertextuality, that texts connect and respond to one another in multiple ways, implies that writing is, to a degree, mimetic. It is mimetic not only explicitly of what we are trying to represent, but also tacitly of what we have read. Hence the reproduction of style and genre from text to text. Literary critics have had much to say on all this.
As for anthropology, we teach by having students read exemplary works. In the MA seminar called Critical Issues in Ethnography I have sometimes taught, I expose students to a wide range of ethnographic style. I do not reserve my admiration exclusively for the kind of first person writing that Ruth Behar advocates in her entry (which uncannily pre-empted my decision to approach writing through reading). Yet I like to start my course with a text that raises the writing stakes or challenges the conventions of genre, a book like Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place or W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. It is a striking fact to discover then that, just like Kincaid, Malinowski begins Argonauts in the second person. When I set out on a new writing project I try to cleanse my palate by reading a piece of really good fiction. (It may not have the desired effect, but there is always a horizon to aim for.)
I am afraid that reading is becoming a lost art or one limited to that privileged small percent at the top end of the bimodal distribution. Marilynne Robinson, surely one of the best American writers, whose novels range from the surreal (Housekeeping) to the simple sublime (Gilead), gave a book of her essays the pointed—and quite wonderful—title When I Was a Child I Read Books. How many of our students can now say that of themselves?
We all know what the issues are. First, the shift in the venues and means for imaginative experience, from private reading to electronic gaming and various forms of rapid fire and simultaneous on-line communication. Second, the shortening of texts. This is as true for so-called ‘high culture’ as it is in the popular sphere, as novels slim down from the hefty tomes of Dickens or Tolstoy. Ethnography too has shrunk. Evans-Pritchard’s supreme Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande is taught in abridged form. The original doesn’t sell because instructors don’t assign it; instructors don’t assign it because students won’t read it. Students won’t read it for “lack of time” and for want of sufficient attention span. There is a risk that the works that do sell pander to these students.
Third, there is the substitution of images for text and even of text received as image. “Good teaching” is now supposed to be produced through orchestrating sound and image bites, in which PowerPoint summaries can be captured on cellphones. What get lost are the slow reception, translation, and absorption of ideas over the course of a lecture, the disappearing classroom arts of listening and note-taking. In effect, what professors are now expected to provide for students are not lectures themselves, in all their depth, idiosyncrasy, unpredictability, and provocation, but the professors’ own notes—as if the instructors were the ones receiving instead of giving the lecture. Listening, reading and writing on the part of students are effectively short-circuited and the professors get high marks both on student evaluations and from the institution’s teaching and learning centre for their innovative use of technology. A further approach, cheerfully called “experiential learning” at Toronto, does afford some real benefits, but it too avoids silent reading and writing or a situation in which a student might actually be forced to be alone with his or her thoughts.
The subjectivity cultivated in silent reading or in letter writing and journal keeping is once again restricted to a small proportion of the population. Such reflective subjectivity was a significant component of the modern self or subject, the self that is displayed and reflects on itself in 19th and 20th Century fiction, philosophy, and social theory, the self that is presupposed, exemplified, and enacted by most authors we value, even by those poststructuralists who claim to deny or subvert it. (Poststructuralists read too.)
Our profession and our own writing have been based (among other things) on the art of quiet reading (perhaps: the quiet art of reading), of reading to ourselves and for ourselves, and communing with ourselves by means of the text. The question is, what kind of writing can we expect when we no longer read this way?
We have not yet reached a fully post-literate society. Certainly, technology enables lively new genres of writing, shorter and less formal, like this blog itself, with the request for 800 to 1000 words that I am now over (I write, therefore I count). The art of reference letters flourishes—and is beautifully sent off in Julie Schumacher’s epistolary novel Dear Committee Members that should be on every (aging) academic’s bookshelf. A forward thinking editor at the University of Toronto Press, Anne Brackenberry is keen to commission graphic ethnography. And less is sometimes more. We read and admire Geertz and Sahlins more for their essays than their monographs and we should give as much attention to the crafting of articles as we do to books.
As the number of texts increases it is only right that most of them should be shorter, enabling a more equal reception among a limited audience. But we need to resist the reduction of books and lectures to the compilation of information or the status of executive summaries. Just as the Slow Food movement promotes good eating (and irrespective of any elitism), we need to advocate Slow Reading. Good writing will follow, as surely as food lovers become cooks.
 For a lovely example, see Donna Young, “’The Empty Tomb’ as Metaphor,” published in the special section on Pilgrimage to the Holy Lands that she edited with Jackie Feldman in Religion and Society (Volume 5, Number 1, 2014, pp. 106-127).