On the Gist of Things
I regularly teach Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life in my freshman composition course. The day the first chapter is assigned, we spend the entire hour on the first three paragraphs. On the Smartboard screen I bring up images of miners’ picks, woodcarvers’ gouges, and surgeons’ probes, and I push the students, with leading questions, to go deeper and deeper into the purposes of these tools and the care with which they must be used to achieve those purposes. I push them to think about how and why the wielders of such tools need to “make the path boldly and follow it fearfully.” Then I invite them to apply what they’re figuring out to writing, to begin understanding Dillard’s metaphor—how is the line of words like a pick, a gouge, a probe; the writer like a miner, a woodcarver, a surgeon? We add the box canyon metaphor to what they’ve come up with. They feel their way, tentatively making connections.
Then I ask them what “epistemology” means—“the writing has changed [. . .] from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool,” Dillard writes—and that’s usually when the discussion halts for a long awkward moment. Up to then they’ve been able to bring previous knowledge of the world to bear on concrete images, and they’re beginning to get a hazy, though gradually clarifying, picture of how the metaphor works—but now I’m asking for a definition of a word, a concept, unfamiliar to most of them. Once I or a classmate offers that definition, lights pop on throughout the room: oh, she’s saying that writing is a tool for the discovery of knowledge, not just the recording of what is already known! What we had been moving toward intuitively and somewhat vaguely becomes a concept they can finally articulate clearly. I end the hour with an exhortation to look up and think about images, words, and concepts which they don’t know or don’t know well, because otherwise they are missing out: they will have only a vague idea of the subject matter, or they won’t understand it at all, or, in the worst case, they will think they have understood when they haven’t.
One semester, at this point a student challenged me. He’d gotten the gist of the chapter, he claimed, without knowing the meanings of the images and words I’d brought to their attention, and wasn’t that all that mattered?
Caught off guard, I worked my way into a reasonable response. Of course, I said, we all read books and articles with unfamiliar words, and we don’t always sit with dictionaries at our elbows. We learn a great deal through context, and we “sort of” know many words we can’t define articulately at a moment’s notice. But, I reminded them, this isn’t casual reading; this is reading for the purpose of study. The job of the student is not to be casual—it is to be intense, focused, detailed, desirous of learning all he can. Casual reading lends itself to casual learning, or, more likely, no learning at all. That may be fine in its place—I don’t read my beloved detective fiction especially intently—but is its place the readings assigned in a college classroom?
It was an acceptable off-the-cuff answer, and true, I still feel—as far as it went. But the more I thought about it, the less satisfying I found it, because the real issues lie much deeper.
Of course there’s a place for casual reading that doesn’t require full, profound knowledge of every word and concept. And it’s true that we do learn many things through the context in which they appear, in the same way we learned to know and name our world as infants and toddlers. But this approach is only appropriate for some kinds of reading. I’ve mentioned the detective novels I love to read for a break from intense intellectual work, and much literature can be approached that way. Although any decent novel will repay close, intense reading—and the best do require it—there are plenty for which such effort is not necessary in order to follow and enjoy them. Newspaper reports are specifically crafted to be read casually; in fact, the gist of the article is given in the lede for busy people who won’t read further, and the information decreases in importance by paragraph (so that editors can cut from the bottom for space).
Some popular magazines are written precisely for casual reading, with light, informative articles on sports or fashion, profiles of interesting people, maybe specialized information put in layman’s terms and meant only to suggest brief, pragmatic ideas about marriage or parenting or health or the workplace, and so on. After all, no one expects close reading in the doctor’s office or the airport, where so many of these are found. The Internet of course is full of short, easy-to-process articles on every subject imaginable, and often that’s all we want or need—a little refresher on Greek mythology, or what “off-sides” means in football, or the history behind the Alamo, or how to pick locks, or the ten things women need to know about men. We may sometimes read even professional articles casually to decide if they hold the kind of information we want to give a slower, closer reading to.
But even given that casual reading is perfectly appropriate in any number of cases, I can’t help wondering how a reader knows if he has gotten the gist of a piece if it contains very much unfamiliar content. Even casual reading requires a certain amount of knowledge and attentiveness to be of any value.
The Internet abounds with discussion forums and sites that allow comments, and I’m constantly taken aback at how often the casual reading at these leads to rude, repetitive, and irrelevant comments. Some commenters seem to think they should be taken seriously when they have obviously read, at most, perhaps one or two of the other entries and they then offer information or objections that have been addressed multiple times already. They think, apparently, that they’ve gotten the gist of the whole conversation when they’ve actually ignored most of the development of its ideas. Worse, to my mind, are those who read so quickly and casually that they entirely misinterpret an article or comment. Right now at one of the sites I frequent, a college professor is writing about online education. He began his first post by remarking that he teaches online, that online education is fine for many purposes, and that he himself is benefitting from taking an excellent online course. Then he discusses at length some of the disadvantages of the medium. The first comment? Something to this effect: “Actually, online education is a great way to learn and you should find out more about it.”
Those are moments I silently (or not so silently, depending on how solitary my environment) scream at the person somewhere on the other side of my computer screen, “Can’t you read?!”
The good reader reading casually doesn’t entirely miss details; he just skims them instead of attending to them closely. If he doesn’t know a word or concept, if an example or image is unfamiliar, he mentally files it away until he either understands it from context, realizes he doesn’t need to know it because the rest of the piece is adequately clear without it, or acknowledges that if he’s going to understand, he’ll have to dig deeper, stop reading casually, start attending. At that point he may decide the piece isn’t worth that amount of time—but, if so, he also won’t respond to it or discuss it with others as if he had understood it.
In other words, only a good close reader is a good casual reader . . . only a good close reader can know if he’s gotten the gist of something he’s read casually . . . only a good close reader has enough knowledge and ability to know whether the things he doesn’t know are important enough to affect his overall understanding of a piece. And I have to wonder, after a quarter century of college-level teaching, if very many of my students have the close reading skills to make their casual reading of any real value, to make it more than simply reading into a piece what they already think they know, what they want to hear, or what they assume a writer means based on a keyword or two that elicit an instant emotional reaction.
I see it constantly. A question about an article’s thesis is answered with an assertion from the first or second paragraph—in which the writer is laying out the view he will refute in the article’s body. A question about what evidence is being used to support the thesis elicits an example or statistics that support the opposing view. A question about a writer’s obvious biases meets with blank stares or wild guesses that have no bearing on the written words. Almost every semester, in almost every core course, I have to respond to the remark “That was such a pointless, stupid article, why did you make us read it?”—but discussion quickly reveals they have no idea what it is even about, much less whether it has a point or not. Or they arrive in class angry because they think a writer has called into question an ingrained habit or treasured belief—but they can’t explain how or why he does so nor have they seen the ways he has qualified his position which might create common ground between them.
How, then, can they know they’ve gotten the gist of something—when so much of the time they haven’t?
But they are in a hurry, living in a world of sound bytes and tweets and constant electronic connections. The moment I dismiss class, cell phones appear in nearly all hands as they frantically check for texts or Facebook notifications they’ve missed in the last 50 minutes, or call a friend in the cafeteria a few hundred yards away to tell him, “I’m on my way, be there in a few seconds.” Their favorite websites are cartoons or poster-type images, not articles or forums; they click link after link at sites like stumble-upon.com in search of some quirky image or video to be the first to pass it along to their friends.
None of these activities are per se “bad” or “wrong”; lolcats and despair.com are my own favorite procrastination tools. Yet their pervasiveness, their constant use in lieu of serious reading, is symptomatic of a culture rapidly becoming impatient of detail, disdainful of reflection, fearful of solitude and quiet. “Getting the gist of it” becomes an excuse for evading the hard work of knowledge and wisdom.
Yet the gist of things leaves us with a shrug. If mere assertions could compel us to action, Dillard could have written “Life is like writing; it’s hard but it’s worth doing with passion,” and left it at that. But would anyone be moved by it, be challenged, be changed? Rather, we move on, dissatisfied, seeking something to ease the discontent that our own actions are fostering.
In the second chapter of The Writing Life, Dillard tells us that living in the senses—living a life of pleasure totally grounded in the present and in the world we can see and touch and hear and taste and smell—is not enough; it is “a life of greed; it requires more and more.” When we rush from experience to experience, when we fear to miss the least happening, when we live as though fulfilling the body’s desires and emotion’s cravings were our most important aim in life—then we become frantic, like drug addicts, for more and more to make us feel the same rush, the same momentary happiness, to feel alive at all.
But, Dillard adds, the “life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.” When we live in search of wisdom and wholeness and service, when our focus is not on our momentary pleasures but on the pursuit of truth and beauty and goodness, we are not harried and rushed and demanding. We can slow down and see, we can take our time and attend to the more profound life offered us both by the mind and spirit and by the natural world—when we seek in it meaning and not mere pleasure. Reading closely and attentively is natural to this way of living.
Yet in our impatience, instead of cultivating the life of the spirit, we think we can gain it, too, by sound bytes that give us the gist of the wisdom of all the ages. So many books on the Christian life today are written simplistically, with multiple headings in each chapter announcing every slight change of thought: just read the headings for the gist of it. And often the rest of the content does little to make that central idea challenging or interesting—simple assertions in simple sentences and simple vocabulary, stories that take only a paragraph to tell and with little detail, allow the words to pass by our glazed eyes with little effort and less effect. The ideas themselves may actually be profound and profoundly needed—but they are presented too easily, too glibly to reach us.
My student ended his challenge with the question, “Isn’t [getting the gist of it] all that matters?” It might be—if all that mattered in life were a grade on a quiz, or if the gist of anything moved us to think carefully, believe rightly, and act purposefully on both principle and compassion. This is the ultimate purpose of language, of communication—to move us to right belief and action.
Ernest Hemingway wrote a famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It isn’t only its brevity that makes it memorable—I’ve read hundreds of imitations and remember none—rather, it’s the emotionally compelling nature of the image and the loss it evokes. Yet, would we want all stories given to us this way? This is the gist of sorrow over the loss of a child, but how was the child lost? We don’t need to know for the story to touch our emotions, but that is the extent of what it does—and, however moving, that is not enough for a steady diet on which to live.
Those six words are, indeed, the gist of tens of thousands of stories, and each of those stories has its own element of loss and sorrow and meaning from which we can benefit in further ways than only the immediate emotional reaction. Was the loss an early miscarriage or a still birth, was the baby the first of young parents or the fifth with eager siblings awaiting his arrival, was he the long-awaited miracle of a couple who had tried for years to have a child, was the death due to an accident or negligence on someone’s part, was it from a forced abortion or even infanticide? While each story carries the same sense of loss captured by Hemingway’s brilliant wording, if we want more, if we want to gain empathy and wisdom and truth and a desire to change or help, then we need details, we need to know the story and not merely its gist.
After all, Hemingway didn’t specialize in six-word stories; the rest of his work is filled with salient detail which not only creates pictures and evokes emotions, but through the interplay of character, plot, and setting offers us a way of seeing the world, a set of values to consider, which we can accept or reject—but we must read at least carefully enough to understand what perspective and values the story itself offers, not reading ourselves into it instead.
And good writers spend considerable time choosing the details they use and crafting them into clear thoughts on the page, as clear as humanly possible. This is no easy task—and we dishonor the writer when we think “I’ve got the gist of it, and that’s all that matters.” Again, yes—some writing is meant to be understood quickly and straightforwardly—but even this must be crafted well and read carefully enough for the point to be clear. And writing of the most value to us—that which makes us more human, not merely more informed—cannot be crafted or read at this basic level of mere clarity.
The details in the setting of Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” tell us what the unmarried, pregnant girl knows and feels and possibly what she chooses, but in a way that makes us think. Hemingway could have merely said that her intuition was overwhelmed by her need for immediate security. Instead, she walks to the far end of the railroad depot from where her lover has been talking at her, pressuring her to abort their child, looks over the lush valley of the Ebro River, and says vaguely, “We could have all this . . . .” Then she turns her back to the valley, returns to the table in the shadow facing the barren hills, and says, “Could we get another drink?” Although the dialogue is rich and contains enough ambiguity for lively discussion about her final choice, to overlook the detailed setting is to overlook vital clues to the tone and direction of that dialogue.
Of course this is equally true of serious nonfiction. When I consider the time and effort Dillard must have poured into The Writing Life, searching for the exact metaphors, the most precise words placed in syntax painstakingly crafted to carry her meaning, I wish to honor her by attending to the work as she herself did. As I uncover the riches revealed in just those first three paragraphs, I understand her meaning more fully than I would have understood the mere assertions, I remember it more clearly, and I am moved by it to consider my own attitude toward writing—and toward life. She makes me wonder what I am missing in the supposedly mundane world that surrounds me and that I so easily ignore or dismiss, and I want to learn to see it as she does, to be enriched by it in soul and spirit, to glean wisdom from inchworms and honeybees and a stunt plane’s flight—and from the words I find on any page that open the world to me.
Critic and teacher F. R. Leavis likens the good reader to “the ideal executant musician, the one who, knowing it rests with him to re-create in obedience to what lies in black print on the white sheet in front of him, devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness, intuition, and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived.” Only when we learn to read this way will our casual reading hold any value. I want my students not to be satisfied with the gist of things. I want them to be challenged, to challenge themselves. I want them to find ideas compelling and never casual, to become so well-read, so familiar with words and ideas, that even casual reading will no longer be truly casual, even when it seems to be, because the heart takes in depths of which the mind may not be consciously aware.
All of this leads me to wonder if the gist of things ever really is “all that matters.” After all, even those detective novels I read for “mere entertainment” show me much that’s true and necessary about justice, about love and hate, about loyalty and betrayal, about how to live well in this broken world. I may not need a surgeon’s probe to locate the depths of such writing, but knowing how to follow the kind of path one makes allows me to notice the details of any writing that can make me care.