Reading backwards: Reading against the grain

One piece of copy-editing advice that authors are often given, as a good way to catch errors, is to read your work backwards. It’s a smart defamiliarisation technique. If you read the last word and then move up the page word by word, you will catch spelling errors. If you read backwards sentence by sentence, you will catch grammar issues. I usually prefer to read backwards paragraph by paragraph, to check that the sentences and claims flow logically within the paragraph.

This kind of technique helps us get out of our writerly mindset into a readerly mindset—and it also helps us to see that reading against the natural flow of a text is a good way to analyse it, to catch gaps and errors and issues. This kind of reading reminds us that readers have agency. It reminds us that readers are pirates not good students. It reminds us that readers are judging our work, not merely experiencing it, that it is their job to be critical and to bring their own experience and expertise to the text.

But also, sometimes people are reading for fun, to explore, to browse, or in order to be able to talk about your work in a reading group.

Now that the proofs for Writing Well and Being Well are off to the printer, I’m coming back to a previous set of questions I had about generous reading (the earlier blog post turned into a chapter for the book, but it was just the beginning of things I wanted to explore).


Timothy Bewes (2010) offers one model of ‘generous’ reading, in a very theory-dense article that I am only partially engaging with (pesky readers be reading however they like!).* He reminds us that it was Walter Benjamin in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History‘ who said that it is our ‘task to brush history against the grain’ (VII), because if we allow ourselves to read history uncritically, then we will simply empathise with the victors—we will see the outcome of wars and conflicts as being ‘correct’ or ‘natural’. Such readings, however, would not be ‘generous’ or honest, or even particularly accurate!

One way to read ‘generously’ is given to us by Deleuze (via his student Colombat):

You [students) must trust the author you are studying. Proceed by feeling your way. One must ruminate, gathering and regathering the notions. You must silence the voices of objection within you. You must let him [the author) speak for himself, analyze the frequency of [his) words, the style of his own obsessions. 

Deleuze during the very first session (22 October 1985) of his seminar on Michel Foucault, according to Colombat’s lecture notes, (1999) p.6

What would it mean to ‘silence the voices of objection within you’? Bewes argues that it’s not so much that one reads and uncritically accepts everything the text gives you, as it is given (p. 24). Rather it seems that a magnanimous reading looks at a text—not for “gaps” or “links” to what is beyond the text (as we often do in academic reading)—but instead pays close and careful attention to the text itself, and highlights the elements that are already in the text.

On the other side, are works that are intentionally written ‘against the grain’. For example bell hooks writes about the kind of theory that is ‘liberatory’, freeing and ‘healing’ (p.2):

There were many times early on when my work was subjected to forms of dismissal and devaluation that created within me a profound despair. I think such despair has been felt by every black woman/woman of color thinker/theorist whose work is oppositional and moves against the grain.

bell hooks, Theory as Liberatory Practice (1991) p. 10

For a marginalised writer like hooks, it would not be ‘natural’ to empathise with the victors of history—rather, her family and life experience would highlight that, as Benjamin said: ‘without exception the cultural treasures [the historian] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror’, based on the ‘anonymous toil’ of slaves, workers and women (VII).

bell hooks goes to Terry Eagleton, rather than Deleuze, to guide her approach, encouraging us to experience the world and the text as if we were children, who have not yet learned what “natural” looks like, and who instead read with ‘a wondering estrangement’ (The Significance of Theory, 1990, p. 34).

A ‘wondering estrangment’ sounds to me like a gloriously generous and yet critical reading strategy. We need enough critical distance to defamiliarise ourselves from work we believe we already know (whether it’s our own work, texts we have spent years working on, or a group of researchers whose approach we think we already know about), to actually see the text, to actually look at the words.

But we also bring a curiosity to our approach. We ask questions—not to test or undermine a text, but in order to find out more. It is not ungenerous to ask ‘why?’ or ‘how do I find out more about that?’ or ‘what happened next?’ Such questions rather help us to unlock more knowledge and to share more knowledge.

Perhaps this is the path towards the next steps of this inquiry. Our preconceptions about a text do not lead us to automatically dismiss it. We even allow the text to ‘brush us up the wrong way’, to ‘ruffle our feathers’, to disquiet us, to unsettle us. We love going on an exciting journey of discovery, we love to learn to see new things and to see in new ways—that’s what research is all about!

Generous reading makes room to see the text on its own terms, but also makes room for the writer to share more knowledge. And as generous readers, we bring our questions that lead to more expansive, or deeper, or richer knowledge.

Such a kind of reading is about sharing gifts that re-affirm our culture of establishing and maintaining connections, to challenge each other to ‘greater expressions of generosity’ (as Tim Rayner puts it in in his blog on ‘Social media as gift culture’ and the Kula ring). When we publish work, we are sharing our knowledge. Through your citations, you make connections with other research and other researchers. By reading your work, I make space to understand and accept your generous offer of knowledge. And by asking questions, by engaging with your work, I challenge us all to keep opening it out to further expansiveness.

You may notice that generosity is not dependent on things being free. Gifts may be free, or they may hold within them an expectation of reciprocity—what matters is not what it costs us to read generously, it’s whether our ‘wondering estrangement’ leads to reading that is freeing and ‘healing’, and makes space for more and more people to be included in the sharing circle of reading and writing to expand human knowledge.

Photo by Andrey Haimin on Unsplash

* I’m completely unconvinced by the conclusion of Bewes’ argument, which seems to end with a suggestion that a play that uses blackface as an ethical solution to recommend. While this artistic choice might be logical when ‘historicising its own positionality with respect to the text’ [italics Bewes], and to highlight racist issues within the play, two wrongs don’t make an ethical right, and when we are doing research we must be bound by research ethics!


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