The impulse upon reading something new to immediately chase references and gather commentaries, like a paratrooper scrambling for cover in enemy territory, can be an efficient strategy for academic survival. But for all that is gained by situating an unfamiliar argument in broader discussion and surveying existing positions before arriving at one’s own, it is important to recognise what is lost: that first, fragile moment of direct connection.
Undistracted by fashions and influences, disciplines and genealogies, refutations and rivalries, but just alone with an idea, one can examine it carefully in its own terms, reflect on its internal coherence and the plausibility of its premises, imagine what the world would look like were it true, what conditions would prove it false, and how one might test it, and think about the problems it might solve. One can simply observe, and consider.
The parameters of existing debate constrict one’s intellectual horizons even as they expand them, and another’s interpretation of a text irreversibly colours one’s own. One can never re-read a great novel for the first time, and once one has begun to read around an argument, one can never again meet it in peace.
The first encounter is a moment of freedom; it is a moment worth savouring.