Reading Block

I ended the last post having finished The Future of Invention Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change by John Muckelbauer (SUNY UP, 2008), which I read while putting another book on hold, David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (Simon and Schuster 1996).   Tonight I dwell in the many directions each one of these leads.

1. David Denby’s Great Books:  The 1990’s (beginning in 1987 and ending in 2001, reasons to follow) is the refrain that follows my page-turning of Great Books.  Shocked by  my pleasure in reading this book, I find I literally hang on the barely-present plot. Me: “How will he fare with Hegel?” I worry. For Hegel. For Denby. For my memory of Hegel.  Then it all works out and we’re onto Mill.  Boring.  But then I flip over a few pages and realize that we’re hitting the Austen chapter. Me again: “Im so stressed…what will I do if he says even one disparaging remark against Elizabeth or Emma?”

But mostly the direction I take in reading this is back.  I am haunted here by a problem of history.  What were the culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s?  Was “culture” really about content? (The content was the “what” of books: the “canon” thought important to read in American higher education.)   The history of the present drives my pursuit of that near past.  Are the “culture wars” of today about form as they seem to be? (Now we talk about space, place, and shape…the “how” of literacy…what genre, media, interface to consume or connect to or remake.)

2. John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention  Not a book for pleasure, but engendering a kind of enthusiastic pursuit nonetheless.  Like many other scholarly works, I will need to hang around it for a while, until its purpose becomes clear.  Here, the direction is forward.  The future, the promise. I chase the find, not what was found.  “Can I see complexity working here?”  “What theory is at play that will bring me…not home, but to some place where all the questions connect?”  I seek confusion and progress, not relief.

Here’ s one example:  Because figuring out where I land on “complexity” as way of describing humanistic pursuits haunts my work, I wonder: “What is “complex” about what Muckelbauer says about audience?” (Audience—the “reader”—is central to any version of history or vision of culture.).  And “can I write that?” Here’s what he actually says about audience:

As a situated practice, rhetoric cannot simply filter situations and audiences through a generalized methodology, regardless of how intricate, flexible, or contextual that methodology may be.  But that does not mean that situatedness and singularity cannot be taught.  Indeed, we might say that within the very practices of generality, singular situatedness is always being taught (though in multiple ways and with diverse effects).

Wait.  What does that definition of rhetoric do to my reading direction?  I’m distracted; I think this post started out readable.  It’s veering into impenetrable.  What happened?

Reading block.

Not the inability to read, but the pursuit of meaning that prohibits reading on.  Lost in the labyrinth, no where to go but the the messy middle of the present.


Reading block is not reader’s block.  This isn’t about me, or any subject for that matter. It’s about navigating reading.  And that will be a relief to know once writing block sets in.  Hopefully, by next week.

About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
This entry was posted in Complexity Theory and Writing, The Culture Wars, Then and Now. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Reading Block

  1. Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for checking in. Your dilemma–reading and writing with long projects–is both a quandary for the Orals and a central question for the way any of us handles information, story, big ideas. Here’s an old-school way I like to deal with larger books: write endnotes on sections. After a section (not a chapter, but a bunch of pages…most academic books contain mini arguments of around article length, so 20 or so pages is about right for a section) flip to the back cover of your book, write the page numbers you’re working with (pages 35-55 for example) and write a central question or main idea for those pages. Then, at the end of the book, you can string together those notes. Something usually comes out those parts…especially when you are not trying to make them into a whole at first. Hope that helps. Keep me posted on how it’s going.

  2. Jessica, first of all I wanted to tell you that I am mindfully following your blog, so keep posting! Second, I am in a state of reading block (genius btw) that is unique to my stage in the English PhD program : orals. I have set up a schedule of reading with the intention of writing summaries on my blog, which is actually pretty easy for short pieces (articles, chapters, blog posts). However, when it comes to blogging my thoughts about book length works I don’t know where or how to begin. I hate having to read at my computer since I am constantly – to the point of headache – working at my computer on my many digital project. But if I don’t take notes (I use Google Docs then format into a webtext to be published on my blog while reading, then I can’t seem to get started on a worthwhile summary at the end. I am currently stuck on Richard Miller’s book Writing at the End of the World. I read almost the entire thing on my Kindle at the beach; lovely but not conducive to to note taking. Any suggestions on how to get through this mental roadblock?

  3. Pingback: Writers Block | Associations

  4. Nora says:

    Writer’s block–so 20 th centy, male dominated, old school, elitist !!!!! reader’s block– Brilliant!!!! a post-post modern dilemma which really needs analysis. what does reading mean in a beyond book, interactive culture? The end of dog-eared, coffee stained pages and who (u) nose what else????? can’t wait to read on, assuming i don’t get reader’s block.

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