She Makes with the Thinks (or Not)

I read something over on Star’s blog that, in a perverse way, I was glad to read because Star is one whip-smart lady and if she is dumb, then that must make me High Priestess Dummy-pants. She talks about (among other things) reading critically and the experience of reading something and realizing that nothing is sinking in. I struggle with this often, so I thought that I’d rant a bit on the topic.

It’s frustrating for a smarty-pants who is trained to read critically to 1) lose this skill and feel dumb when she picks up Joyce on a whim or 2) refine this skill and find joy killed in most other aspects of her life.

It’s true that critical analysis usually increases my appreciation and enjoyment of a book (or movie, etc.), providing that what I’m analyzing is good. However, not everything I read is great Literature- I may be reading for fun. For instance, why would I want to obsess about the implications of indefinite article usage in post-modern literature when I’m re-reading my favorite childhood book for the gazillionth time? When I was working on upper-level undergrad and graduate literature classes, I couldn’t do any leisure reading immediately after papers/finals time. My brain needed decompression time and not just because of stress. I would read too much into everything. I would even communicate differently. And what about those occasions when I don’t want to think at all? I don’t want to sit down to watch an episode of Invader Zim and then over-analyze it to death when my goal is to relax. I don’t have an on/off switch. I’m either in the habit of thinking critically, or I’m not. It’s frustrating as hell.

I suppose I need to come to terms with the fact that there isn’t enough time for everything and that I have to make choices as how to use my time. If I want to tackle Joyce, I should exercise my brain regularly and expect to read too deeply into everything. On the other hand, I’m already a bit of a snob but when I’m in analytical mode, I’m obnoxious. After fifty pages, critical!Jen would have tossed aside Twilight. As a result, critical!Jen would have missed out on an excellent study in pop-culture phenomenon. I don’t want to be closed off to new ideas or experiences. I don’t want to be that person.

Perhaps there’s a middle ground. I have yet to find it.

In writing this, I realized that I have one exception to my lack of brain on/off switch: music. The experience of listening to music is usually visceral or even meditative for me. My brain seems to be bypassed completely. I can be in critical!Jen mode and still enjoy music without over-thinking it. There’s no need for the on/off switch. Maybe I tend to prefer music without words because language pulls me back into critical thinking mode…

3 replies on “She Makes with the Thinks (or Not)”

OK, thank you for the compliment, and good points. It is possible to go too far with the critical mindset and fall into it too much.

Full disclosure: I never went to a four-year college; I have two two-year AAS degrees, but not so much as a BS to my name. I had exactly two English classes at Ivy Tech–composition and speech. My formal education in literature and reading ends at high school, effectively. Sigh. I don’t generally feel terribly inferior about having gone to a tech school instead of a proper university, but it’s possible that a touch of degree envy creeps in every once in a while.

It’s also possible I just have low self-esteem problems from time to time.

And it’s also possible I just need to go have a good night’s sleep and will feel better in the morning. 😉 Which is often the case.


‘Welcome : )

I don’t necessarily buy into the ‘you need a degree- always’ argument but I see your point. I regret not taking more philosophy, psychology and anthropology or language courses (although I wasn’t about to hang around for another year to do so!). Sure, I could find a syllabus online and complete the readings on my own but I like the structure, the availability of professors and discussion with my peers. Also, choosing to pay for classes means that I’ve chosen to complete the coursework or waste that time or money, so there’s very real incentive for following through.

Formal training is nice but you’re already reading and writing at senior-level lit classes anyway, so you’d probably have to take grad classes or attend conferences or workshops to feel truly engaged or challenged (and the latter tends to be a bit stuffy, what with all of the egos crowding the room).


Hm. I think the thing with the classroom setting, for me, is… Well, it’s partly the structure, being kept on track and not a) wandering around aimlessly or b) wandering off mid-book, which I’ve been known to do. The more important thing, though, is the background. I mean, yeah, I can pick up Utopia or Jane Eyre or Fahrenheit 451 or whatever and read it whenever I please, and get something out of it. There are times, though, when I think it would be helpful to have a better idea of cultural/historical context and a given book’s influence and things like that, to sort of help me connect the dots and get the most I can out of the book.

Right now what I’ve got for that, outside of my own head, is the Net–and while that info’s out there, the problem with the Net these days is that there’s so MUCH information out there it can be hard to sort through it all. It would be so much handier to have it in a class, all collected in one place. That’s what I feel like I’m missing out on — not so much learning how to read, but deciding what to read and putting it in context. If that makes any sense at all.

(Although today I’m much less angsty about it than I was at bedtime last night, or whenever it was I wrote the original entry, in any case. Grin.)


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