Saturday, January 13, 2007

Chicken, egg

Six months ago, before I started writing this chapter, I read one of the few works of literary criticism that deals with the material I'm examining. It's a well-known book now some decades old, and I read it then with the belief that I was doing my due diligence, getting a handle on what had already been done, grappling with a major critic, etc. I underlined it, argued out loud with its author, and talked about it with George Washington Boyfriend (who, to my chagrin, had read it long ago and even cites it several times in his own book. . . and you may recall that he and I are not exactly in the same field). When I finished the book, I thought, "Well, good. [The author] doesn't really talk about the things I'm interested in, and his approach is totally wrong anyway. I'll just deal with him in a tidy few sentences somewhere and a couple of footnotes."

Fast-forward to the present, when I've got a messy 50-page draft that hasn't quite found its argument (or that has, rather, found three or four arguments, none clearly related to the others). Now that I'm here, it turns out that one of the things I'm interested in is dealt with by that book that I read six months ago, and while I still suspect that its author is wrong. . . I can't quite remember. I have no idea where he says the things that might be similar to what I'm saying. I can no longer even articulate precisely what I thought the book's weaknesses were.

In other words, I didn't take any notes when I was reading.

Argh! Why do I do this? I take very detailed notes when I read library (and especially ILL) books, but when I own the thing, I often figure that there's no need to do so. I flag pages and underline passages and sometimes write cue words or brief commentary in the margins, but that's it. Now I'm going to have to go back and skim the book carefully, taking notes along the way, and thinking through more seriously how my own work relates to that of this prior critic.

But I'm not sure that having taken notes at the time (which, memo to self: you must always do in the future) would have helped with anything other than finding the relevant passages or chapters--I'd still have to re-read and rethink them, and I'd probably want to re-read a larger portion of the book as well, just be sure that there wasn't something else that I had neglected at the time, thinking it irrelevant, that now mattered terribly much.

It may be that my ability to retain and remember complex arguments is poor; after all, if I could remember them, surely when I acquired new knowledge a lightbulb would go off in my head and I would exclaim, "oh! now I understand exactly what that guy was saying in that article I read last year!" Instead, I have to re-read everything in the hopes that such lightbulbs--if they exist--might, perhaps, switch on. When I was writing my dissertation I reskimmed every single article I'd photocopied, many times, just to make sure that I hadn't missed something (or to find that elusive article responsible for something I thought I'd read, but couldn't for the life of me remember where).

Or perhaps re-reading is as essential for works of criticism as for works of literature: you read something that gets you writing, then you go back and find something new and respond to it, and then you go back again, and find still more. Maybe that's what the scholarly dialogue is all about.

Maybe. But I still wish that I had a better memory. Or, failing that, better notes.


Anonymous said...

Ahhh ---- Thank god somebody else does this! Somebody who managed to finish and get a job, despite it!

I take notes on books, but with revising I sometimes feel as if I'm the only person in the world who takes months and months of writing to come up with a jumble of ideas --- and then I laboriously resolve a contradiction only to go through my notes and discover that I had figured this out months ago and forgot!

Anyways, you give me hope that this is just the way writing is --- thanks for making my day!

--- trystero

medieval woman said...

I am the exact same way as well - if I don't take notes (often multiple sets of notes) nothing in the book will remain anywhere in my head. I have to do that constantly - go back and re-read. Ugh! And it's even worse when it's a critic that you thought wouldn't have anything to really offer your argument!

kfluff said...

Urgh, I've done this as well. It's been so long since I've worked on my summer project that I've forgotten everything, which makes me wonder if I'll have to re-read it ALL in order to finish the article.

One possible strategy: I use the front page of the book to jot down main ideas and page numbers. There's no replacement for re-reading the thing, but at least I can then skim the front page a year later and remember what the major ideas were.

Earnest English said...

I totally know that whole have to go back and reread thing! (Of course, we can justify it by saying something about reader response and how we are different people each time we read a piece so that the meaning changes.) Because I have the worst memory ever, I now keep a running bibliography. I had to do a zillion annotations for some grad requirements at one time, so I just starting adding to that file. The best part of the whole thing is that if I write the right stuff down, not only do I not have to go back to the book (though I probably should), but I can also search through the whole bib for keywords if I forget which book I've got on the brain. Maybe that would work for you.

(It wasn't my idea actually, but something one of those super-organized wonder boys once told me. I'd never have thought of it on my own!)