On the Art of Annotation, etc.

I often wonder, when reading, how much work the author put into writing the work.  I know that, in my own book-and-article-writing endeavors, what ends up on the page amounts to less than 1/10th of what I do elsewhere in the process (including all of the editing and revising, which is never less than 2/3rds of the “writing” stage).  Even longer blog posts receive considerable attention in the phases of reading, thinking, and outlining.

Sometimes, I get the impression that the author did very little but cobble together a stream of more-or-less loosely-associated thoughts, with no attempt to assure their actual coherence or accuracy beyond the consultation of one’s own dimly-formed interpretations and memories.  I’ve seen this in academic books, novels, and many an article (especially those posted online).  Other times, I find myself marvelling at the depth and richness of the author’s sources, knowledge, and interpretation, believing myself to be an incomparable ignoramus to such grand erudition–or something like that.  This latter impression is frequently the result of an academic slight of hand (namely, dropping names and texts with dogmatic pronouncements on their meanings and relevance) which, once unveiled, reveals the authors as bigger dunces than the careless aforementioned.  But sometimes, I am genuinely amazed by the writers’ capacious knowledge on display.

newman_with_library
John Henry Cardinal Newman

And so I wonder: how, in what manner, did they do this?  Did they sit up all night, night after night, among a great collection of books and papers, flipping through pages again and again until the edges are worn and dirty; drawing, erasing, revising, and throwing away diagrams, making notes in margins, on scratch paper, in digital notebooks, writing draft after draft after draft and tearing out hair after graying-hair (like my own pitiful efforts)?  Or did they simply put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and produce greatness in an uninterrupted flow of genius?

In particular, I have to wonder–do, did, these great geniuses struggle to understand the authors they themselves read, as I struggle to understand the works they in turn produced?  I have always been a fast learner, but a slow “understander”.  For instance, I can learn how to use computer software, or how to perform a particular physical task, pretty quickly.  But what Thomas Aquinas really means by abstrahere?  That took me a decade to get a grasp on.  What Peirce means by Thirdness?  Oof.  I’ve spun my wheels since 2009 on Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.

I remember thinking, some years ago–as I was working on my dissertation, struggling with the piles of disorganized books and papers strewn about my desk, bookmarks wedged here and there, underlines haphazardly dashed across pages, marginal notes nearly indecipherable in my cryptic, micrographic scrawl–that if I could just get my thoughts organized, it would all fall into place.  I never really did get organized with my dissertation research; in fact, in some sense, I did not even know what I was truly arguing for until I finished not just the final draft, but the final revision of the final draft.  And yet the illusion persisted that organization was a prequisite task to the writing of good academic work; that I needed a plan for how everything should fit and then all that is left is to plug in the appropriate pieces.

It is only recently that I have abandoned this belief.  Not that I have abandoned my habits of organization.  I am a good deal more orderly than I used to be, for sure–especially in my reading and note-taking.  I have a lengthy, agonizing process of reading, re-reading and underlining and annotating, transcribing and revising my underlines and annotations, cross-referencing my interpretation of what is said in this text with what is said in that text, and so on… almost ad infinitum, it seems.  Much of what I underline, and preserve, and annotate, ends up disappearing from the final product of my research altogether.  Was it worth it?  Did I waste countless hours going down the rabbit hole?

Perhaps I am overly ambitious.  The three philosophers who most influence my own work–Thomas, Peirce, and Heidegger–were each prolific authors whose complete works are mind-blowingly large.  I have not read all that any of them have written and, even if I had–could I claim to have really understand it all?  Could I claim to be a master of anyone else’s thought?  On the average day, I’m not really sure what I myself am thinking until at least 2pm; how could I claim to know what an Italian man living nearly 800 years ago who wrote in rather laconic Latin was thinking?  Or a German who seemed to have deliberately written in a style as verbose as it was obscure?

At a certain point, we have to cut ourselves off, bring our work in to focus, and produce some result.  Like sifting through the Saraha with a hand-held seive… and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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