Have you ever had to read a journal article or book that made you go: WHAT THE $!%? That made you shake your head, re-read four times, and question the author’s sanity?
For me, that reading was Jacques Derrida’s book Of Grammatology (1967). Derrida was a French philosopher and semiotician who pioneered the theory of ‘deconstruction’ – a way of interpreting the relationship between a text and its meaning. I had to read it for my honours literary theory class, and it was a nightmare.
Derrida’s writing style is not exactly known for its brevity. Put it this way: if Derrida met Ernest Hemingway in a bar, he’d be gruffly told to get to the point before he could finish ordering his drink.
My Derrida readings were densely philosophical and highly abstracted. He theorized the nature of meaning in spatial terms, using words like ‘centre’ and ‘play’ and ‘outside’/’inside’ in ways which made absolutely no sense to me as an honours student. Plus the versions I was reading were translations from the original French, so I was grappling with that too.
I slaved over those readings for hours, and couldn’t glean even a tiny bit of meaning from his writing. But I couldn’t bail on Derrida. I had to read his writings and show some sort of understanding if I wanted to get through my honours year. So I needed to come up with a technique: some secret method for getting through what were, to me, the most dreary and difficult of readings.
And the techniques I came up with were, ironically, Derrida-inspired.
Derrida wrote about texts as if they had shape; yet I could see none in his. On first reading, I couldn’t see any organisation to his ideas: no structure, no logic, no order. But philosophical writings very often aren’t orderly. Eventually, I stopped looking for structure in the traditional way that I understood it (beginning/middle/end; or hypothesis/discussion/conclusion). I started looking for a different kind of spatial organization.
I managed to extract ideas from my difficult readings by thinking of them as topographic maps. After a couple of times reading through a key passage, I highlighted the parts that immediately jumped out at me as being most important. These were the peaks. They were the most quotable bits; the purest encapsulations of the author’s ideas. Then leading up to those peaks, I could often see some inclines: the justifications and arguments that led to the important conclusions. I could also see deep valleys where I could find, even after several readings, no sign of landmarks.
I colour-coded my copy of Derrida as if it really were a topography. Then I knew what to focus on. As it turned out, I was able to show a passable understanding of the reading by focusing on the peaks and inclines. Even though I never came to understand some of the valleys, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to absorb Derrida’s every word. I needed only climb the mountains, not hike the whole terrain.
Derrida also gave me another hint about how to read his impossibly difficult texts. He wrote about a concept he called différance, which broadly means that in order to understand a word, you relate it things that are both similar and – crucially – things that are different. For instance, to understand the word ‘pen,’ you could relate it to ‘pencil,’ ‘quill,’ ‘stylus,’ ‘marker,’ and so on. In the differences between those terms and the items they signify, you could start to form a concept of what the term ‘pen’ signifies.
The same is true of difficult writings. If you can’t interpret a text, try reading other authors who both agree and disagree with the content. By engaging with those who have responded to the text, you can start to build a picture of the text that has prompted those responses. At first, that picture will only be a second-hand view. But it might be enough to help you access the text from the outside in.
Once you see the reading through the lens of other authors’ interpretations, it’s often much easier to break through it yourself. (Plus it gives you a break from re-reading the same thing over and over again!)
What are your own techniques for getting to grips with a difficult reading? Post them in the comments below!