St. John's College Santa Fe The Program

Facts, Facts, Facts: Reading at St. John’s College

By Garri Saganenko

“I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.”–Sven Birkerts, Notebook: Reading in the Digital Age, Changing the Subject

I, too, would then have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing in my past couple of years at St. John’s.

What kind of claim is this, especially at a school that operates with a ‘Great Books’ curriculum? A frightening one, it seems, but only if, as Mr.Birkerts said, plot memory is my only stricture. Surely I’ve forgotten the minutiae of the many texts I’ve read at St. John’s (maybe it will come back to me at some pub trivia night in the future), but that does not mean I’ve forgotten the many texts themselves.

A reader at St. John’s is transformed from someone who mines for facts, to someone who strolls through caverns noticing an ore deposit here, a different way of thinking, of answering a question, there. I think this transformation is for the better. After all,  IBM’s Watson has already ‘learned’ more facts than any one person could ever know. And, as Mr.Birkerts expresses in another essay in his collection, isn’t that just boring? Aren’t there questions that are more pressing to us all that Watson could never answer?

Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “The world is all that is the case,” but he also said, “The world divides into facts.” Maybe this division is reason why we, Mr.Birkerts included, read. To divide the world into facts.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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