Against Reading and Writing

I have a rather ambivalent relationship with reading and writing.

In my early years I read fiction voraciously and wanted to be a fiction author. I read only for entertainment, so I gravitated to genres such as adventure, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and comic books. Accordingly, I refused to read “required readings” for school if they were uninteresting; I would simply skim them or read the Cliff Notes in order to pass the test. Later on this habit resulted in much trouble for me, since I presented myself for a time as a literature major in college. That was a mistake, but I managed to barely get by.

At some point around the age of 14, though, I found myself pondering the ideas in fiction more than the plots or characters. This resulted in me briefly considering myself a poet. However, I was too pragmatic to accept it as a vocation, and people around me were a little baffled by what I wrote, so it fell from my consciousness. A few years later, around the same time I discovered that I did not actually like reading “classic” literature, I also discovered that other poets found my poetry pedantic and stupid.

At about 15 I thought maybe I would be a journalist, but again it did not seem like a practical way to make a living, so I eventually moved away from it. Later I made peace with journalism in a graduate class focused on “literary journalism,” but by then it was not really a career option. This class also resolved my conflicted attitude toward writing classes; for years I had enjoyed expository writing even though I had despised every class on writing. By this time, I had discovered on my own the joys of rhetorical analysis. Most likely the reason I hated writing classes was because writing teachers have an irrational fear of rhetorical analysis.

I was probably 15 when I turned to books that focused just on ideas, and I started to wantonly browse the shelves for books on philosophy, psychology, politics, and theoretical physics in my father’s library, the public library, and the bookstore. My peripheral interest in the ideas of theoretical physics unfortunately led me to believe that I was suited to study engineering, but after a couple of years I decided that I was not. I never followed the delusion that I should become a philosopher, psychologist, or politician.

Eventually, my eclectic reading interests and obsessive proofreading led me to consider myself an editor. I found that the technical aspect of editing, often disparagingly referred to as “copyediting” or “line editing,” was beyond the capabilities of most writers and scholars; it is hardly even acknowledged as a useful skill among people bearing the title of “editor.” Those who can do it, moreover, are rarely inclined to, because it is tedious and unrewarding. Yet, it is far more rewarding as a vocation than retail sales or unskilled factory work.

The only real downside to editing as a profession is that most people think of an “editor” as either a crusty, old, small-town newspaper editor or a sophisticated, glamorous New York magazine/book editor. These people only know of editors from cartoonish stereotypes in movies. It is too difficult to explain to these people what “editing” is.

Then there is a second tier of people who have actually worked with editors occasionally. The scholarly types view editors as uncultured, uneducated trolls who constantly try to clutter their prose with “citations.” The amateur fiction authors think an editor is like their kindergarten teacher: someone who will correct their spelling with a red crayon, pat them on the head when they draw within the lines, and change their pants when they soil themselves. It is too aggravating to talk to these people without a signed contract and a cash advance.

I tell aspiring authors that I am not interested in editing fiction because fiction authors are not actually interested in writing.

Recently I have decided not to reveal to new acquaintances anymore what I do for a living. It is enough to say that I read all day long, I like to play music, and I like to take long walks.


11 thoughts on “Against Reading and Writing

  1. Interesting piece Dave. I’d like to know more but I won’t pry. At a guess your editing is in some technical field? At any rate it sounds a worthwhile and fulfilling career choice.

    My mother Patricia Miles wrote some novels for young adults, which were published and got decent reviews. (One, “The Gods in Winter”, was fairly recently re-published in the USA.) She had two agent-cum-editors. The first, by her account a difficult, unpleasant woman, got the best work from her. The second was nice as pie but my mother’s career fizzled. I’ve forgotten this editor’s name but her party piece was to say she had rejected J.K.Rowling. (Of course, there were many others who did that.)

    As you know I have myself self-published a novel which I will forbear to specify further. (The curious can find details on my Facebook page which is accessible via my picture – I hope that’s OK.) Now I too used to read enormously in science fiction and other genres, such as historical. However, I gave up on ALL new fiction some time before I thought of writing myself. I don’t know if it was the fiction getting worse or me getting older and more picky – probably a combination of the two.

    I have to admit though, it may also be a result of advancing years that one’s favourite reading material is what one has written oneself!

  2. For a few years I worked on college textbooks in various fields, mostly technical; then academic journals and books in history and social sciences. More recently I have focused on philosophical books, but that project will likely end in about ten years. Someone has been trying to draw me into working on fantasy and science fiction, but it wouldn’t be a new author.

    I don’t know why I stopped reading fiction, but perhaps the only fiction author I’ve consistently read in the last 30 years is Stephen R. Donaldson. I think I became disappointed with some of the quality of what I was reading 30 years ago. I found it was easier with nonfiction to get the content (ideas and discursive approach) that I was seeking, along with evaluating the quality beforehand.

    To expand on my characterization of people’s consciousness about the editing process, there would be a third tier of professional authors and editors, and a fourth tier of professional editors in my niche area (in my field, the authors are all dead).

  3. Well, about the only sf-fantasy author I have systematically avoided reading in the last 30 years is Stephen R. Donaldson. A fine writer no doubt, but he lost me early on, what with the subject matter. (I know – people in glass houses.)

    I’m intrigued though – a philosophy editor who doesn’t like literary classics! Isn’t that something of a drawback? – but perhaps I misunderstood.

    Luckily for me, the UK educational system allows one to specialise after age 16, which I did in the direction of maths and physics. So (having by this stage failed English Literature, and barely scraped a pass in English Language) my enjoyment of the classics has proceeded to this day untroubled by formal study requirements. Rather unusually I kept on with German to the end of secondary school, but I did no work whatever for it, sensing that enough would rub off for some sort of pass, which it did.

    Regarding philosophy in general, my viewpoint is summed up by Oswald Spengler (albeit he is a little soft on Kant, as I’ll explain). From “The Decline of the West” (standard edition), p.45:

    “Systematic philosophy closes with the end of the 18th Century. Kant put its utmost possibilities in forms both grand in themselves and – as a rule – final for the Western soul. He is followed, as Plato and Aristotle were followed, by a specifically megalopolitan philosophy that was not speculative but practical, irreligious, social-ethical. This philosophy… [illustrations: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche] has embraced, therefore, all the possibilities of a true philosophy – and at the same time it has exhausted them.

    “Systematic philosophy, then, lies immensely far behind us, and ethical has been wound up. But a third possibility, corresponding to the Classical Scepticism, still remains to the soul-world of the present-day West, and it can be brought to light by the hitherto unknown methods of historical morphology [step forward O.Spengler]… Its solutions are got by treating everything as relative, as a historical phenomenon, and its procedure is psychological.”


    But then, what was the Categorical Imperative if not social-ethical?

    To sharpen the point a little, it doesn’t matter if what they said was true or not – what matters is why they said it. (For me, particular scepticism attaches to metaphysical manifestations; that is to say, anything beyond individual human minds. Examples would be Schopenhauer-Wagner-Nietzsche’s ghastly Will, or even Jung’s collective unconscious.) In short though, relativism rules – informed by psychology of course. I’d suggest, specifically analytical psychology.

  4. I can’t provide a critical analysis of Donaldson, since I was drawn into reading him because someone gave me the first book as a joke gift (he thought the title was funny); I just wanted to finish the story, which still has not ended. The extreme psychological symbolism in the early Thomas Covenant books fascinated me, though.

    In editing, I am more of a mechanic than a fashion designer. I know that most editors are eager to impose a literary style on an author, but I consider that a barbarism. If the author doesn’t have anything to say, it is a waste of time to dress it up; and if the author does not know what he wants to say, he should hire a psychoanalyst instead of an editor. But many editors are paid to recruit and develop talent, not parse words.

    I’m not sure what connection you make between reading literary classics and editing philosophy. I would say that modern readers of philosophy disdain anything literary; and while “literary” readers may consider their favorite authors to be philosophical, this is likely due not to their rigorous thinking, but rather to their ponderous prose. Anyway, I am comfortable with the author being better educated than I am, if he can write clearly.

    What you say about truth–“what matters is why they said it”–reminds me of Simone Weil, and speaks to a kind of analysis that I tend to do reflexively. (Perhaps this is actually a sign of my deficient education, that I can’t analyze something according to an objective standard.)

    But why would Spengler’s translator impose the term “psychological” on the text at this point? The Beck edition that provides the source gives us “physiognomisch”, and this English edition is not shy elsewhere about referring to physiognomic factors. Notice that the translator also avoids echoing Nietzsche by not translating “Zukunft” in this phrase:

    diese „unphilosophische Philosophie” der Zukunft

    I think the translators were a bit sensitive about the use of Spengler’s terms in certain National Socialist rhetoric.

  5. Fair remarks, and I will try not to drag out the argument. I did once (in my less cultured days) benefit from some excellent editing of a scientific paper I had written. I’m sure that willing writers can learn from such treatment, if it is done sympathetically.

    As I am in fact completely innocent of modern philosophy (later than Popper anyway), I had better not pursue my pro-Great Books argument further in this quarter!

    Regarding Spengler there was just one translator, Atkinson, who finished work on Volume 1 in January 1926. So I doubt there was much concern about Nazi rhetoric. “Der Zukunft” is a reasonable omission in the context, and he may simply have missed the reference. “Psychological” reads better than “physiognomic” but it is true the paraphrasing is a little loose, as elsewhere. For example, on p.49 “für den Erkennenden” (for those who know) is translated as “through cognition”, thus missing a swipe at (as I believe) the Platonic Guardians.

    I actually think, sentimentally perhaps, that Spengler was almost more subversive of the main lines of German thought than he himself realised. His basic tactic being to characterise Western, “Faustian” (and to him primarily Germanic) culture as driven indeed by the all-powerful Will – but to turn round and say there have been other cultures, of equal worth, with completely different motivations or “Prime Symbols” as he termed them. From which viewpoint his relativism is quite pleasing to those who, like the gloriously sceptical Edward Gibbon, are disposed to regard as a legitimate object of mockery “the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics” (from his chapter on the rise of Christianity).

    It is only philosophical relativism, of course… objective standards are fine, they exist in all sorts of disciplines, generally by common agreement and according to the needs of the particular subject … enough!

  6. I guess I looked too quickly at the publication history.

    Based on this small sample of text, I wouldn’t trust this translation, and would rather read it in German. The idea that a physiognomic method is a scientifically sound method of psychological assessment (or even classification) is an old superstition.

  7. i said I wouldn’t labour the point, but I just heard old Oswald spinning in his grave. “Physiognomy” was a metaphor, an unfortunate one perhaps, but more respectable in his day than ours. Even Darwin wrote a book called “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. To Spengler it meant studying the visible “face” of a culture, its architecture, art and so forth.

    Also, his buttons would have been pushed by “scientifically sound”; he rejected attempts to make history (and by a reasonable extension, the humanities in general) into exact sciences. To him there was Nature and History, and history was the study, precisely, of that which is not the domain of the “causal.” Best illustrated by the counter-statement:

    “History was seen as Nature (in the objective sense of the physicist) and treated accordingly, and it is to this that we must ascribe the baneful mistake of applying the principles of causality, of law, of system — that is, the structure of rigid being — to the picture of happenings.” (DOTW p. 49)

    The flavour is hard to convey by quotations. Still, like Spengler I started out as a mathematician, which perhaps is reason fo me to share his disdain for the phenomenon (particularly noticeable in psychology) which I have always privately labelled “physicist envy”. Scientifically sound, forsooth!

    Atkinson (an Englishman) is generally acknowledged to have been a devoted and conscientious translator. He had to deal with an incredibly long-winded, rambling and disorganised writer, who furthermore was notoriously reticent in the matter of citations. To me Atkinson often brings out the sense better than the original, but as you illustrated, it’s best to check.

  8. I’m not really in a position to criticize Spengler’s use of terms, and I understand that his notion of race is nuanced. I’ve only read a little of him before, because of John’s references. Generally I would say I am skeptical of his historical method but sympathetic to his historical perspective; and his analysis of culture is certainly insightful.

    The criticism was aimed more at the translator, and I am judging him harshly because I was trained as a German-to-English translator. It appears that he is not very faithful to the text, and it does not seem to be a matter of subtle connotations in the German, but more like his own bias.

  9. I don’t believe I mentioned “race”; a sensitive topic to be sure. At any rate, purely for my own reassurance I once made a study of Spengler’s writings as they might bear on it; and it seemed to me that by any applicable criterion there was nothing objectionable in this regard – in fact, quite the reverse. I’ll concede, a phrase such as “the coloured world-revolution” (from ‘The Hour of Decision’) might sound a little incendiary – but the sentiment itself is at least understanding, if not downright sympathetic, toward such “revolutionaries”; not to mention remarkably prophetic of actual events (i.e. Algeria, Vietnam etc.)

    I’ll stand by Atkinson – he was an honest man, he did his best, and he deserves better than a charge of “bias”. Perhaps the trained translator could illustrate with an example – a passage of Spengler, Atkinson’s version and your own?

Instigate some pointless rambling

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