A Morning of Re-Reading Badly (and Perhaps Occasionally Well) 
David I Smith’s thoughts on re-reading books
An Occasional Paper for Principals, Heads of English & Humanities, Librarians
This morning a little space opened up in my schedule, and I have been re-reading a long-familiar book. The physical volume is old and worn. In fact, it was re-issued with a fresh title almost three decades ago, and I am holding the original edition, though I bought it used. As my eye has travelled what ought to be familiar pages, I have been reflecting on the act of re-reading, considering where it fits in my ongoing attempt to be a scholar of some kind. The book in question, Parker Palmer’s To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education,1 has some things to say that are relevant.
Why give a morning to reading something I have already read more than once, especially when there is no pragmatic need to do so? I am, after all, behind on so many other things. And I am not studying for a quiz.
If I am honest, an underlying anxiety about productivity is a significant part of the reason this question even arises at all. It’s one of those concerns with which I disagree philosophically but cohabit psychologically, thanks to a lifetime of cultural conditioning. You would think I would know better by now. My work is often interdisciplinary, and the literature published in any given corner of any given subdiscipline of any of the disciplines that interest me exceeds the possibility of keeping up. Yet, a persistent part of me suspects that I am supposed to perform the illusion of ever-expanding mastery. This part of my psyche keeps reminding me that instead of revisiting this old book, I could be adding another acorn to my precarious store, getting through a couple more shiny new things so that I can inch a little closer to seeming as smart as I think I am supposed to seem.
Re-reading a novel would feel more acceptable, but that’s usually for pleasure, and this is work. I notice that the first page of results that come up when I Google “re-reading” (distraction, hello old friend!) are about books for small children. I am trying to be adult and competent here. My reading is not even preparation for an imminent class, and a prodigious email inbox is waiting with sharpened teeth and a predatory grin. Surely my colleagues are working harder, and this is self-indulgence. The forces prodding me toward imagining myself as an active scholar also work to discourage me from deepening my understanding. This is one of the many paradoxes of this strange calling.
I notice these temptations affecting me as I read. My better self knows that the concerns outlined above are mostly lies and nonsense, and so I have gone ahead, once again, with my decision to give the morning to a different kind of learning. Still, I keep noticing myself spotting sections that are familiar and unconsciously speeding up, turning the opportunity for reflection and change into mere recognition and completion. I remind myself that the act of re-reading is a space for deeper learning, for better grasp, for fresh response to important and complex ideas, but not all my acquired habits are playing nice. To the extent that I give in to mere acceleration, the act of re-reading does indeed become time poorly invested—a faster journey to hollowness. The irony deepens when I pause to remember what I am reading: Palmer is articulating an extended argument against a way of knowing the world that is focused on distanced objectivity and mastery. He invites us to a way of knowing grounded in relationship, community, obedience, and, ultimately, the incarnation. To skim-read this book is just plain silly, betraying a failure to grasp what I am actually reading.
When I do succeed in slowing down and paying attention to what Palmer is saying, he offers me some compelling reasons for reading again. A proper relationship to truth, he argues, is indeed a relationship. It is a quest “not to rearrange the world but to learn its intricate relationships.” (p.36) You don’t tend to get much intricacy from a stack of summaries and citations. When we truly know something, “that which we know does not feel like an object to be manipulated and mastered…knowing it means that we have somehow entered into its life, and it into ours. Such knowledge is a relationship of personal care and fidelity…” (p.57). I am reminded that not all of my formation has been malformation. I have experienced repeatedly that scholarly work with any semblance of depth and insight comes less from collecting many things and more from interacting intensively with a few things that are genuinely in focus, allowing the space and time for an intricate interaction to emerge. This is a big part of why re-reading matters.
There is another sense in which acts of re-reading always seem to serve as reminders of relationship. Especially with books like this one, books that have struck me at some time as important, I regularly find that a fresh visit evokes the humbling awareness that I have nothing that I did not receive. Thoughts that I have made my own, that I am used to articulating with my own accent and weaving into my own projects and urging as insights with my own passion, turn up right there in black and white on the pages of the books of others. So that’s why I think that. It was not so original after all. That pesky inner voice would rather be an Original ThinkerTM but I find that revisiting my sources is a salutary reminder of how I am bound and indebted to others.
When I slow down, then, I am—among other things—obeying what Palmer’s text is teaching, that knowing is relating. Palmer emphasizes that Jesus’s teachings about obedience being necessary to knowing the truth pertain to more than just “religious” truth. When what we learn remains detached from our own response—when we can learn statistics about poverty without enacted compassion, when we can learn about atoms without considering our relationship to energy and weaponry and beauty, when we can debate diversity apart from dialogue with those who are not us—then we have only a thin facsimile of truth. This is another reason for finding myself one more time in the middle chapters of this book. I have already underlined quotations, many of them eloquent and insightful. I have cited some of them. But I am not at all sure that I have fully figured out how to respond to them in my own teaching. And so, I need to come and reflect on them again and not just check them off as something I covered once and filed away in storage. I could read a new book, but what if I have not yet obeyed this one? (Of course, obedience here does not mean assuming that Palmer is right about everything and slavishly implementing his instructions. It means listening hard for the truth in what he is saying and responding appropriately.)
And this is, in the end, a book about teaching. A major crux of his argument is that as a teacher, “I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formative pressure on my students’ sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world.” (p.30) The nuance and integrity of what I am able to offer to my students, whether in terms of content or process, is directly related to my own mode of learning. Who I am in the classroom is connected to the manner in which I have been paying attention. The way that I organize the classroom will echo what I think truth is, not just my theory of truth but the way I go about learning it. A stack of quickly digested summaries is unlikely to lead to transformational teaching and learning. I need to re-read, to work on the relational threads, to question again my own obedience to what I am learning, if I am to have a chance of teaching with integrity rather than performing academic tourism before a passive audience.
And so I have spent the morning re-reading an old book, feeling a little guilty, and savouring one more conversation with it. I feel a little proud that I didn’t finish it. I am hoping that I might have learned, and that that might help me teach.
- Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We are Known: A Spirituality of Education. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Page numbers here refer to this edition. The more recent edition (HarperCollins, 1993) carries the subtitle Education as Spiritual Journey.
David I. Smith is Professor of education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University. He writes on teaching and learning at https://onchristianteaching.com.