Summer Reading will happen (maybe) in September. I have been reading; at last count I was actively reading 22 books and episodically reading another dozen, but all of them are for essays I’m (ostensibly) writing and I’m not ready to talk about them yet. My present bibliographies are, moreover, almost pure instinct, and there is no surer way to destroy hunches than to systematise them too early. Of course, I’ll probably have like a 10,000 word post by September, so let’s see. Maybe I’ll write an actual fucking essay!
The one book I read in the last..three months for no reason other than happiness was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I was fact-checking an essay about it and finished half the book one morning in office. Oh, and I read Darcey Frey’s The Last Shot to prepare for a class I’m taking in the fall. It is so utterly fabulous that I, as clueless about basketball as a person ever was, read the whole thing in two days. If you are a sports fan, it must be a radiant book, as indeed it is if you’re a New York person. The only other book I’m reading for joy is The Mirror of Beauty, which beloved Fubu brought from home last week. I might end up reviewing it, because my life works like that, sigh. All anyone need do is ask me to.
That’s that. Let us talk about me now, because this is my bogey.
One of the smartest professors to teach us in law school said that my crippling flaw as a thinker is that I’m fuzzy around the edges. Or, as she put it, “you can’t think if you can’t define.” She wasn’t very fond of me (you wouldn’t have been either if you met fourth year din) but this was during a second, private viva she was kind enough to offer me after I flailed around spectacularly in the first one. I am not a confident speaker: people make me nervous, and the best way to ensure my brain blanks out is to ask me a direct question in front of an audience. I, am, however, a decent conversationalist, and I think she realised that, cos in the second viva we just.. talked. That afternoon is one of my happiest academic memories from law school, and her advice has been engraved in my brain ever since. Four years later, the best editor I know told me something very similar: that while it is wise to believe your audience is cleverer than you, it is folly to believe they know more than you do. Research makes you blind, it makes you think obscure things are perfectly obvious.
Thinking through this has shaped me in ways I can’t begin to define (heh). It affects my research questions, my note-taking, my editing process. It’s hard to take the long slow way when there’s a conclusion glimmering on the horizon, but I think I am getting better at it. My soul remains reckless, but my brain is trying not to be. I once thought that it is my timidity as a speaker that makes me such an arrogant writer. But now I know I hold my opinions so tenaciously because they are all I possess instinctively: I don’t retain information. If all knowledge is an equation between analysis and data, one must compensate for the lack of the other. I like to think that my brain deploys data strategically, which is a fancy way of saying I keep a lot of notebooks and don’t remember a damn thing once I’ve written it down.
This summer I’m thinking about this a lot, because I’m doing two things I never have before: editing the wilfully obscure and taking a class with a cohort as unlike me as I can imagine (for one thing, they’re all dudes.) As an editor I experience, daily, the frustration of people assuming they’re writing to their own perfected selves. Writing might be thinking, but it’s not thinking aloud, and for the first time I realise just how solipsistic that impulse is. Editing has also meant that I am even more desperately blocked in my own work—I have been for months now—but this last year has taught me more about writing than the previous 25, so perhaps putting one sensible sentence after the next is overrated, right? RIGHT?
(I sometimes think that the reason I’m not writing is terror: that once I settle into an essay all my intangible insight will fly out the window. Other, more despairing times, I think it’s because I genuinely have nothing of relevance to say.)
As for the class, I decided to take it because living without deadlines was driving me insane. It hasn’t helped on that count: turns out if you’re a workaholic you need work, not exotic substitutes. But it has helped with my clarity issues, i.e., it showed me they persist, vivid as ever. All the classes I have taken in my over-educated existence have been with clever people clever in the same ways that I am clever. This has advantages for people who hate attention: I can always count on someone to jump in with exposition every time the teacher looks around expectantly before I make my own ingenious observations. It also means enduring a lot of people repeating each other, but that gives one time to ponder one’s next unexpected observation. Passive listening can be extremely soothing, and I recommend reading seminars to anyone with ulcers.
This class is exhausting, partly because it entails participating with a sort of wistful ignorance and partly because I am constantly calculating the gap between my own knowledge and understanding. Mostly, though, it is because there is no room for my ingenious observations: I have to focus on the building blocks and figure out exactly where mine crumble. Researching a critical essay (for ten years all I have written are critical essays of varying competence) is the foundation of a very specific knowledge, at all times tainted by voice and audience, and it is heady to do this free of those shackles. It is thrilling to serve no intelligence but one’s own, to be consciously limiting one’s knowledge rather than haphazardly bloating it ever further. It gives me joy, basically, to have found a safe space for rampant error other than the privacy of my diaries. At first I thought, because I’m often a foolish snob, that it would be dull. But it’s liberating to quit thinking of the classroom as a gladiatorial ring, to be allowed to learn by observing people unpack things I thought I knew. It feels like first year without the anguish of my first year. It feels like being seventeen again, and it smells like summer.
(In summary, Ma: don’t worry, I’m ok)