I’m going to make the bold claim that if you’ve taken Contemporary Civilization, you probably skimmed through Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Perhaps you didn’t mean to; perhaps you had planned on reading the last chapter at the very least to make sure that you would have at least something of value to say in class. Perhaps, when you found yourself at a back cover, you read the conclusion again with such generous care that you punctuated breaths between words: Thus. We. Do. Not. Comprehend. The. Moral. Imperative. But. We. Do. Comprehend. Its. Incomprehensibility. What was the moral imperative again? Shit. I’m lost. Or, perhaps I’m wrong, and you woke up early to camp in Ref, and as the sun rose and set (and probably rose and set again, knowing how long it must have taken you to actually get through the book), you stayed. Perhaps, even then, you still had no idea what the moral imperative was.
Columbia prides itself in offering an education backboned in literary canons. It’s also a school that attracts the impatient and frowns on patience. The combination of these two creates an unfortunate paradox: Our libraries are full of people who are reading on, but not between, the lines. In layman’s terms: we’re skimmers. We’re also excellent finishers, closers, tiebreakers—the kind who miraculously churn out negative splits in their last miles. We entertain unhealthy obsessions with Google Maps. We are experts at saving slivers of time en route to our destinations.
But the danger of all of this is akin to seeing stars without drawing constellations, or possessing full structural and grammatical fluency with languages while having zero comprehension of what each word actually means. When we read without reading, we risk rendering our time here similarly meaningless. Impatience makes it possible to work quickly through litanies thousands of pages long and learn, in these four years, absolutely nothing.
I wrote a paper during my sophomore year about how Michael Henchard in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge fulfills René Girard’s definition of a scapegoat as both “social transgressor” and “Christ figure,” but to this day, couldn’t tell you anything about what the book was actually about. When I finished my paper, I looked up and watched people in the library flip madly through books of their own. We were all caught in the same frenzy, too busy hurtling through thoughts of where we were going next to express a commitment to the present.
Where does all this desire for going, and going quickly at that, come from anyway? As a child, my English grades hinged on a yearly reading comprehension test. The key to acing them was to do them for doneness, to skim the passages only for the necessary. In that sense, reading became ritual. Success was a rapid list of checkboxes; I finished simply because I needed to.
Many of my classmates and I approached our Core texts the same way. None of us really read in full all of the texts that we were assigned (not that any of us had the time to begin with, and even if we did, couldn’t reasonably parse through Kant in two nights with full understanding). Class became a two-hour-twice-per-week chore where we tried to give certainty to concepts we didn’t understand. It’s like trying to have (returning to my fluency metaphor) the conversation anyway. It’s like hearing the tinny sound (returning to my Google Maps metaphor) of arrival over and over again on your phone. You have arrived at your destination, without any actual understanding of how you got there.
I did “well” in CC, but I remember little of the course. Skimming its texts left me with few valuables to distill into memory. When I think about all the tests that I took as a child, too, I realize that the only passage that hasn’t faded into blankness is the one I read the year I failed. I didn’t even finish the piece––I was too enraptured by the way the author’s description of a girl’s eyes crinkling melded with memories of my father’s doing the same thing to read on. “What kind of a relationship do the dog and the mother have?” my teacher asked. I couldn’t answer.
When I think of my father now, I remember that he digs himself into paragraphs the way the lost spin in circles. He’s always refused to use a GPS, preferring instead to trace our routes on paper maps. In his mind, the itinerary was a series of smaller arrivals: by ten, this turnoff; by twelve, veer left. Once, when we got lost, I frustratingly piped up: “Just type the address into your phone so we can get there! Why do we have to waste all of this time?” As I look through my bookshelf and think about how many pages I’ve passed by blankly in these last three years, I think of how my father never needed to hear a You have arrived at your destination to remember how to get there again. He reads not to conclude but to find his way. Perhaps we should all do the same.
When I make a map of my own, and set my destination as a summation of everything I’ve read in my time here, I find that my mini-arrivals—the words that gave me the permission to be patient—are where I want to linger. A Baldwin essay read and reread at 3 a.m. in LeFrak that left me in tears. Excerpts from Discipline and Punish, a quote from which became the name for this column. A passage from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn that captured me so intently that I missed my subway stop. I rode the train up into the Bronx; I silenced my phone. I thought: Shit. I’m lost. Metaphorically. Geographically. Personally.
But as I sat with Sebald and watched the trees blur by, I thought of Kant’s Groundwork. I realized I had been wrong all along. Reaching the “end” was never about the moral imperative. After another close reading through the memories that lingered, another word emerged: incomprehensibility. The feeling between start and stop, the plane beyond two static points—suddenly, conclusions began to matter both less and more. Suddenly, the way forward became clear.
Amy Gong Liu is a senior in Columbia College who almost majored in English. She doesn’t regret skimming the Iliad. Send her some stillness, a savvy alternative interpretation of Kant’s Groundwork, or trail maps to email@example.com. The Lyricism of Marginality runs alternate Tuesdays.