Read anything more than once and you’ve learned that context changes your experience. Reading anything for a course in college is different from reading alone in a quiet room, is different from reading aloud in a coffee shop or a bar with a small or large group of young or old, male or female people; is different from reading in Kansas, Houston, Paris or Madrid. Saying, I’ve read X carries with it a whole narrative about experience, which the critical enterprise of “doing readings” demands we exclude.
            We pass this off as professional distance.
            We do, however, talk often and at length about an Author’s context. Biographical information. Political climate. Identity politics—under any other circumstances, what normal people would consider “personal information.”
            I refuse.
            Why should I privilege the author’s context as a source of meaning over my own? Never mind this is the one thing on which I am the foremost authority, bringing “self” into the Academic equation is strictly taboo.
            I can’t think of any good reason why.
            It is important, for example, that the first time I read James Joyce’s Ulysses, I was a Master’s student in a graduate seminar at the University of Kansas. Any reading I might therefore “do” of Ulyssesis contingent on not only that context in which I read this novel, but also on anything I’d read before or happened to be thinking about or reading at that time.
            The second time I read Ulysses, I was also reading Finnegans Wake.
            What can I say? It was an Independent Study and I was curious. Also: at a total loss. Flailing, I unraveled as many random strands as I could get my grubby little hands on in a futile effort to “translate” the chapter to myself. Not only did it not help, the resulting “translated” version of the chapter was something entirely different from the original.
            Also: artless.
            And yet, in that process of grappling with the Wake—attempting its translation, discovering its fundamental untranslatability—I discovered something fundamental about reading.            
            As a student in the PhD program at the University of Houston, I took another Joyce seminar and read Ulysses for a third time. This time around, what I noticed most was the tendency of critics to choose one feature of a text and hold it up as central, as some mythic key. I found this frustrating and unnerving, as if, perhaps, others could pass for having mastered what I could not, as if, even for all my supplementing, I was among the few who could not complete a reading. The more I read, the more this problem came to resemble the pink elephant in the Academic living room: everybody sees it; nobody acknowledges it’s there.
            That same semester I also happened to be taking a course on modern literary theory. Both classes required a mid-semester paper. To save myself a little time and sanity, I planned to write one paper for two teachers. I imagined using (what little I could understand of) Jacques Derrida’s discussion of the supplement to deconstruct Ulysses, arguing how all the supplementary material I had been required to purchase only proved that Ulysses is incomplete without a reading-audience. Not surprisingly, nothing I read could make me understand Derrida—not only what he had written himself, but scholarly articles that cited him, internet pages that summarized him, and obituaries that eulogized him. Nothing seemed to help.
            In a last ditch effort to get started writing, I returned to the paper I wrote for the Joyce seminar at University of Kansas three years earlier. A strange thing happened: I realized it was basically the paper I again wanted to write. My conclusions were the same.
            How had I forgotten my argument entirely? How had I failed to notice that my third round of rereadings was inherently another first reading? Is every rereading another first reading? What else did my former self know that I had forgotten?
            Even stranger: me-then cited (and seemed to understand) Derrida.  

©2008 Dr. Lacy M. Johnson All Rights Reserved.