Why should students read big, difficult books if they have perfectly good summaries available to them?
If you assign lengthy, challenging books to university students, you quickly come to realize that the students will do what they can to avoid reading them. Often, when pushed, these students will confess to preparing for class by looking at summaries online.
This approach is not without merit. Time is precious, particularly for the university student. And what could be more efficient than a much shorter version of the treatise you’re supposed to be reading? If the arguments found in Hobbes’s Leviathan can be recapitulated in a tenth of the time, then anyone familiar with the idea of opportunity cost ought to opt for the shorter version — provided, of course, it provides a faithful and accurate summary.
Luckily, we live in a golden age of such summaries, particularly if one cares to look beyond Wikipedia or (heaven forbid) Sparknotes. Regarding Hobbes alone, efficiency-minded scholars can pick up Richard Tuck’s excellent Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction or Al Martinich’s Hobbes. Each is far briefer than even the first two books of Leviathan — and any lingering confusion can be cleared up by consulting The Routledge Guidebook to Hobbes’ Leviathan or the aptly named Hobbes: A Guide for the Perplexed.
The point is that there are many very excellent and less costly alternatives to sitting down and slogging through Hobbes or Hegel or de Beauvoir.
So why read them? Now I’m on the defensive. Now I’m sitting here saying things like: “Okay, but you don’t opt for summaries elsewhere in your life. You avoid spoilers like the plague, for example, despite the fact that they are quite literally summaries of whatever show or movie you plan to watch. Surely if anything is ripe for a little bit of economizing, it’s episode 15 of season 6 of whatever prestige television show you’re presently gorging on.”
But this is to mistake the nature of entertainment — we call them “spoilers” because they spoil the fun of watching a plot unfold in due time. The difference between consuming Hume’s six-volume History of England and its HBO equivalent, Game of Thrones, is that binging the latter is enjoyable. We don’t just want to know what happens in Westeros — we want to watch it happen (especially when it happens with the dragons).
Fine, I say. What about religious texts? Many religious communities are oriented around a text or canon of texts, and many of them emphasize the role played by these texts in the spiritual life of the individual and the community. Some of them insist that the text must be read, sometimes out loud, as a community; surely in these cases substituting a more concise version of the text would be inappropriate.
But religious texts are special, of course; they are held to be inspired or even written by God, and the act of reading such a text is held to be a vital means of communicating with the divine. Hobbes, you point out, is very smart — but he’s no god.
Ok then. No, we don’t (usually) read Leviathan for pleasure, and we don’t read it for its spiritual relevance. So why do we read it?
I think the most ready answer is that we read it to discover and understand its arguments. When I teach Hobbes, I linger and define concepts like absolutism and sovereignty and the logic of Erastianism, and there’s a certain sense in which those things are in there and my job is to bring them out. They will be on the exam. And for this activity, it’s difficult to deny that an accurate and thoughtful summary can substitute for a great text.
But I still think you should read big, difficult texts, and I have two reasons for saying so.
The first and strongest reason is that reading isn’t just a matter of identifying and extracting arguments. Reading is also a kind of conversation — a peculiar kind, but a conversation nonetheless.
To read Leviathan is to speak with Hobbes, to open yourself up to not just what he wants to say but how he says it and why he thinks it is important. In the pages of Leviathan, a sympathetic reader can watch Hobbes think; in this way, a sympathetic reader can teach herself to think.
The second reason to read big, difficult texts is precisely because they are difficult. When we say that a passage or text is difficult, we mean that we were forced to work in order to understand it; we mean that we were forced to fill in meaning where it was left ambiguous, forced to decide how to interpret an idea, forced to engage with the text. These things are unpleasant. Big, difficult texts resist summarization because it is impossible to summarize the experience of slow, laborious, active reading.
The bet, of course, is that such active reading will yield a more robust understanding of an author’s meaning, and I’ve met plenty of students and colleagues who would, as it were, take the under. I could, after all this, be full of it. Fortunately, there’s only one way to find out!