Everyone has favorite writers. Books and other scholars that they return to again and again. Well, if you don’t, perhaps you might consider it.
Some of my favorite writings speak to my current work. Other writing is not so obviously useful. In fact its very pleasure might well lie in its non-immediacy. In the fact that it isn’t utilitarian. My favorite writings are those that always have something to offer, regardless of what I’m doing. The text sparks a thought, a reflection – it’s provoking in a good way.
I’m not surprised that it’s largely the non-useful books that make the cut in my current book cull. Of course I’m not going on an academic Desert Island Discs broadcast where you only get to choose one book. Although that would be an interesting exercise.
My current book pruning is directed to what books I really want to have on hand so that I can continue to dip in and out of them, as the mood suits. The books I want to keep have nothing to with “reviewing the literatures”. They’re books that have slowly come together over a long period.
Take my Roland Barthes books. They will all definitely find a place in my slimmed-down bookcases. I often read random bits of Barthes, in part because he was so interested in the processes of thinking and writing.
Today, as I flicked through one of his books I re-read the following fragment – I’ve edited this slightly, but it basically goes…
A text that is thought out with the help of style has a better chance of communicating, because style is an instrument of diffusion and percussion. … I refuse to be trapped in the opposition that sets style on the one hand and something more serious on the other. What is serious is to be within style, because that is where writing begins.( Barthes, 1981 p 201)
Now there is an obvious and potentially immediately useful notion here. Barthes is suggesting that you can’t really think about communicating by just focusing on the content to be communicated. You have to think about how, the nature of the text and of course the reader. And as you are thinking about the how, you are starting to write, even if you are nowhere near a pen or mouse. You are already “within style”.
But there is another and less utilitarian idea in his words too, sitting in that phrase “an instrument of diffusion and percussion”. What does Barthes mean by this? Does it matter what Barthes intended, and is it more a matter of what I take from it? I take from it that writing is active. Writing has agency. Writing does things in the world. Possible meanings are mobile, scattered, more or less concentrated as they move away from the text (diffusion) but at the same time words can be as forceful and regular as a drum beat – they rhythmically hit against other meanings and other texts (percussion).
Now you might understand this phrase differently, or you may think it is nonsense. But that’s really Barthes’ point. And it is why I like his work. What might be seen as a somewhat impenetrable idea, something poetic and somewhat out of focus, is also something to ponder on.
Some people would see this style,of writing as the opposite of good communication. More style over substance. But Barthes’ point is precisely this. In this, in his, writing there is both substance and style, there’s something to chew over as well as something that’s a chewing-over take-away.
Pondering is best done away from the demands of deadlines, meetings and other scholarly activities. Sigh, so hard to find pondering time. But perhaps we can find pondering space somewhere – going for a walk or vacuuming for example.
I don’t expect that you will like Barthes the way that I do. Or find the quotation interesting in the way I do. But I do hope that you find the time to accumulate some favorite books and writers, and that you can make time to dip in and out of them and savour the words and possible meanings.
PhDers in particular are at the start of a long engagement with “ the literature” – do take a moment to start to collect your own small core library of books you love. What desert island library will you build?