Reading Very Difficult Books
The question of reading difficult books has come up tangentially a few times in the past here (for instance, on the discussion of the three-layer structure of evidence), but I wanted to make a thread to consolidate discussion on some of the typical problems we run into when reading very difficult books and how we might go about reading them in a Zettelkasten-compatible way. Perhaps there can be no general method, but we might get some value from discussing the typical problems.
First I should clarify what sorts of books I have in mind. In terms of @sfast's Barbell Method matrix, these are books where the vast majority of their contents fall into the “Difficult to understand” column, and, for most of those difficult to understand parts, it’s not immediately clear whether they are “useful” or not (i.e. it’s not immediately clear what their significance is either for you or the larger argument of the book). In the worst-case scenario, the “part” may be so obscure you do not immediately recognize it as a “part” separate from another “part.” (For instance, a typical move of 20th century French philosophy is to explicitly argue for X while implicitly critiquing Y. If you aren’t aware of Y, you’ll miss the implicit point). Obviously certain ambitious works of philosophy would fall into this category: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Heidegger’s Being and Time, etc. But it also might include historical documents that are hard to read because they were written in a vastly different historical period than our own, sacred texts, or academic works in a field you're not familiar with.
I have a decent amount of experience reading difficult works of philosophy, so I’m going to bring up problems I typically encounter while reading them, however I’m interested in how you approach any difficult text. In terms of philosophy, the ideal situation to read these difficult books is in the context of a seminar. But we don’t always have the luxury of reading a difficult book with others. So, I want to focus on how to read a difficult book on your own. Here are some general questions that come up for me repeatedly when reading on my own, and that I haven’t totally decided on.
Read and process chapter by chapter, or read then entire book and then process the entire book?
@sfast's two step advice is (1) read the book swiftly then (2) read the book a second time to process marked passages. There are pros and cons to this in the case of difficult books. The pro of reading the entire book gives you a rough idea of the whole, so that when you go to process you have a better idea of the context of each part within the larger argument of the work. However, these books often can’t be read very swiftly (my average for difficult works of philosophy is about 5 pages every half hour, while making minimal marginalia, whereas for popular or easier non-fiction I can get up to 15 or even 20 pages per half-hour). This leads to reading the book “swiftly” often taking weeks or even months, which can lead to a lack of momentum, and forgetting of earlier parts.
On the other hand, we could proceed by reading one chapter, then processing it, then reading the next chapter, then processing it, etc. This has the advantage of producing writing earlier. Also, thinking more deeply about earlier chapters in the book will likely help you better understand later chapters. The danger is that processing too early can lead to misreadings of earlier parts of the book. For instance, a lot of philosophy in the “Continental” tradition that I’m most familiar with is written in a way that Gary Gutting calls “persuasive elaboration.” In earlier chapters, a philosopher may make provocative and controversial claims and, instead of immediately arguing for it or explaining it, will spend the rest of the book “developing, refining, extending, [and] defending the new claims in ways that will exhibit their ability to illuminate question that are of interest to philosophers,” (pp. 200-01). A result of this is that you might be liable to misunderstand the claim or the concept until you’ve read the rest of the book. This is perhaps not an issue since we can always (and indeed should) revise our notes when we realize they were a misinterpretation. However, the method of chapter by chapter processing could potentially lead to daunting tasks of revision later on: say I have 50 notes on the first few chapters of a book advancing an interpretation that I later realize is completely misguided. It might be easier to just scrap those 50 notes and start over than to go through each of them and revise or explain what’s wrong with them.
Should we include question or problem notes, notes on why we don’t understand something?
Often when I’m reading a difficult book, and I realize I’m not going to be able to figure out what a passage means by close reading that passage alone, I’ll try to write out exactly what it is I don’t understand about the passage: an ambiguous phrase, a word I don’t understand, my unclarity about the significance of a passage, etc. In this case, I don’t end up with a note describing an argument or a concept or a position, but instead an interpretive question that might end up guiding my later reading. I haven’t decided on whether I think it’s appropriate to include these sorts of question notes in my ZK. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For instance, here’s a question note I have on Saussure’s concept of la langue:
I haven’t answered this question yet. But when I do, I would link the question note to the answer, or to a note explaining why the question is ill formed. Sometimes I find these sorts of questions useful to keep on hand, since they are usually questions a typical reader might have and could end up as good jumping off points for essays. However, a potential con could be relying on question notes as a crutch: rather than doing to the work to actually understand something, just adding a bunch of question notes to your ZK. Despite that, I tend to think question notes are more useful than not (at least, to me). But I’d be interested in what others think about this practice.
When and how to read secondary sources?
A seminar is helpful when reading a difficult book because there are others struggling alongside you and discussing the book with them can help you clarify your own thinking. We might think reading secondary sources or commentaries could be a substitute for this benefit of seminars. However, I’m not always sure. Let’s posit this as an either/or choice, like the other questions I raised. We generally have three options: (1) First process the difficult book in its entirety, then turn to secondary sources for help on particular questions you still have after completing the book. (2) Read and process secondary sources at the same time as reading and processing the difficult book. (3) Read and process secondary sources before reading the difficult book, to quickly give oneself an orientation. I’ve always been warry of (3) since I’m concerned that my own interpretation will get shaped by another author's and will cause me to overlook things that otherwise would have stood out to me. (1) appeals to me the most, but there you have the same danger of processing chapter-by-chapter that I raised: it could be you finish processing the difficult book, amass hundreds of zettels, and then find out that the secondary literature on the book all agree that your interpretation is, in fact, a common misinterpretation. Maybe you read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as an account of the actual historical development of human consciousness. Then what do you do? It seems tempting, again, to scrap your zettels rather than reframe them as a very good example of the wrong way to read Hegel.
So (2) seems like the best option. Though it can raise its own challenges. You’ll be processing multiple related books at once. This could drag out your reading even farther: say you read a chapter of the difficult book, process it, then read a commentary on that chapter in a secondary source, process it and update your notes. Typically, you’ll then have to go back to the difficult book to reread sections of the chapter to clarify your notes further. This is time consuming, but perhaps it’s the way it has to be to avoid both being too influenced by secondary sources and falling into the trap of investing too much energy in a tempting misinterpretation. I have fewer thoughts on this since, in the seminar context, I’ve found I didn’t really have to rely on secondary sources that much. On my own, however, I’m feeling a greater need for them. So I’d be grateful if anyone could share advice on how they handle processing a secondary source or commentary alongside a primary source.
Those are the thoughts I’ve had so far on reading difficult books. Some of the cons I mention might just be inevitabilities of reading very difficult books. One of the things I find valuable about these sorts of books is their ability to not merely convey information but to provoke multiple new thoughts and new interpretations that go beyond what is said in the text. This often means that processing them once is not enough. Maybe some of the problems I identity come from attempting to exhaust these books while only having to process them once… If anyone else has encountered other problems, or has any advice on processing very difficult books, I’d like to hear them.