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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: Ratios of Reading and Writing

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I commented the other day that I have been reading a great deal recently, and that this brings with it problems of perseverance that might seem strange to those who would see reading as a pleasure rather than a chore. Yesterday exemplified the extent to which, in a PhD in English literature, reading constitutes the bulk of what I do, although the extent to which my reading influences my writing can be - certainly in quantitative terms - difficult to detect.

As I have said before, I am currently working on A.S. Byatt, and in several places in her non-fiction she comments on Gabriel Josipovici's phrase "the demonic analogy." This describes the shift in modern fiction away from Dante-esque allegory, in which events in the book stand for the philosophical order of a divinely ordered universe, towards a reflection on the status of the book itself. When the metafiction so common in modern literature reminds us that we have been lulled into believing the world of fiction, we are shocked that what we had taken to be the fictional world - which was one with our private world - was actually only a projection of our unique desires. Thus analogy in modern fiction becomes demonic, a sign of our dementia. This criticism, interesting though not entirely original, points towards one of the responsibilities I think Byatt sees her fiction as holding. However, it is pretty tangential to my main interest in Byatt, and the ratio of the time it took me to read and understand Josipovici, compared to the amount of words I wrote on the primary text, is pretty disappointing, though not unusual in my experience of literary research.

I have a variety of ways of reading. For texts that are probably going to be largely irrelevant, I follow the speed-reading techniques I learnt in my first year. Those novels I know I am going to have to go through twice, the second time with a fine-toothed critical comb, or science books whose content is largely irrelevant, though the style of which is interesting, I read in the normal way, sitting comfortably in an armchair or in the garden; occasionally, I may make notes. Finally, books and articles that are particularly heavy going, or that I need to make detailed notes on, I read sat at our kitchen table, with scrap paper by my side. I make a synopsis and copy out quotations as I go along and then, at intervals, I transcribe these notes onto the computer. (In winter, our stone cottage gets very cold, with the kitchen being the only warm room as it contains the boiler; as a result, the intervals of computer work have to coincide with the central heating coming on). This process has two benefits: firstly, it forces me to read slowly, when I might be tempted to skip as my mind wanders off the difficult or tangential topic; secondly, as I go through the note taking stages on paper and then computer, I have time to step back objectively and analytically and think about how the work relates to mine, whether I agree with it or find flaws in the argument.

It was this latter approach that I brought to Josipovici, and as a result reading the 25-page chapter in The World and the Book took me the best part of a day (in between sending emails and reading book reviews and refreshing the BBC sport pages every few minutes). The chapter was probably in the region of 20, 000 words long, but when I had finished my reading and notes about it, and used that knowledge to write part of my thesis, I had added a total of 479 words to my research. Extrapolated over three years of work, that ratio works out at about 470 words read, to every one word of the 100, 000 I must write.


Posted by Alistair at 11:24 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello again.

I am currently enrolled in an English class at a major university here in the DC area. My topic for a research paper this semester is the murder of M. Calmette (editor of the Figaro) by Mme. Caillaux, in 1914. This project has me doing a bit of “speed reading” myself, as I scan history books for anything having to do with my topic. The problem: I end up reading about all sorts of things that are very interesting but have absolutely nothing to do with my project. I was reading and typing into my computer, but I think I will try your style of making notes first, then typing in at certain intervals.

2:40 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

I find I have to be careful with speed reading, because I either end up taking nothing in, or if the content is interesting I slow down and read properly, and like you get lots of interesting information and not necessarily the single piece of data I was looking for. I find my notes method is also good because the latter computer stage is fairly mindless copying; so when I feel I need a break from intense reading or writing with no end in sight, it is good to have something to look forward to that you know you can complete in 15 minutes without too much effort. It's also a good time to listen to music in the background!

9:05 am  

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