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Sympathetic Knowledge

All reading starts off sympathetic. If you’re reading what someone wrote, it’s because you want to understand what she means. That’s an act of sympathy right there. You’re assuming that the writing is intelligible, that it has some value and that understanding how the world looks to someone else has some value.

We wouldn’t need to think about reading in terms of sympathy if reading were easier. But there’s always an element of guesswork in it. In fact, Marshall McLuhan used to point out the root of the word “reading” goes back to “riddling,” and while that might originally have had to do with the difficulty of learning to decipher letter forms—maybe—it also applies to our trying to piece together the writer’s world from the words that she broke it into.

Usually it’s not too hard. Usually we get it at least approximately right. Or so we think, anyway.

But sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we don’t want to. It depends on which variety of sympathetic reading we’re engaged in.

The first variety is when your interests and values are closely aligned enough with the author’s that you just want to learn from her. For example, you might be reading the memoirs of a person you admire, or literary criticism by a writer you trust.

There are times when you want to understand how someone thinks, but you’re not open to being persuaded by her. For example, if you want to understand Mein Kampf, you’ll read it sympathetically in the sense of trying to understand Hitler’s worldview, but with no possibility of being converted into a Nazi. In fact, with a great writer (which Hitler decidedly was not), you can be led to read so sympathetically that you have to put the book down and clear your head of the horrible world you’ve been inhabiting; Nabokov’s Lolita can have that effect.

There are times when we read a writer with whom we disagree because we think we can learn from the root of the disagreement. For example, Thomas Kuhn gave us the idea of a “paradigm shift” in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He was led to that idea by wondering how Aristotle could have been so wrong about motion. Aristotle was a great scientist, yet he insisted that rocks fall and flames rise because they’re trying to get to their proper places in the universe. Kuhn struggled with this for a long time until he realized that we modern people assume motion is something that happens to a thing, while the Greeks thought that movement was a property of things, like its color or weight. It’s simply a property of things that they’ll try to get to their “proper” places. Through this critical sympathetic reading, Kuhn came to realize that what looked like a stupid mistake by a great mind actually illuminated a deeper difference in how we and the Greeks think about the world.

Reading is a negotiation

Kuhn was able to read Aristotle sympathetically because he didn’t feel threatened by Aristotle’s ideas. But there are times when we feel we have to win an argument with a writer. At that point, we stop reading sympathetically. Where once we tried to get pieces to fit, now we’re looking for bad joins and weak supports. We tap against the sentences, hoping to hear a hollow sound behind them, or perhaps even to feel them give.

This unsympathetic reading teaches us less, for it merely confirms our current beliefs. We have too strong a motive for misunderstanding what the person meant, too often leading us to the least convincing interpretation of what an author has said. I’m sure we’ve all been on the short end of that particular stick, in conversation if not in writing.

That’s a bad situation, but it makes clear how social reading is. Reading is never simple fact-gathering. It’s a negotiation in which we try out meanings to see which ones suit us best. Done right, reading is a sympathetic negotiation in which we believe the author will change our world and our way of moving through it.

Reading done wrong, without sympathy, not only teaches us less than it can, it can leave us worse off than before by incessantly confirming that we have nothing to learn from others.

Without sympathy there is no understanding, and nothing worth understanding.

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