There may be infinite readings of this or that text but there are still good and bad readings. A good reading is surprising, delightful, and generous. Things once familiar become refreshingly unfamiliar; habit gives way to the now and a thing experienced hundreds of times suddenly comes into focus as if for the very first time.
Few things exhilarate the way a good reading does. A fine and fresh distinction or well-placed reversal infuses the banal with vitality, the quotidian with wonder, the dead with life. A good reading is uncanny, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar so you at once know and don’t know the thing.
A reading can’t really be wrong — there is no code to be deciphered, no truth awaiting behind or within the words. Neither the author nor the critic nor the professor will deliver the answer from on high. All there are are different readings.
And yet we can still pass judgment, say this reading is good or bad. For instance, a reading may be out of bounds. To say that Moby Dick is a tale of Soviet oppression is just plain silly. And, I suppose, we can say it’s wrong. Such a reading exercises a certain violence on a text, making it bend in the most uncomfortable ways. So perhaps rather than saying a reading is wrong, we can say a reading is…distasteful? Unethical? Foul — as in baseball? Yes, I like “foul” because it is at once ethical and aesthetic.
There may be no proof that a reading is right but there is evidence — a foul pole of a sort. To read something demands attention, an accounting for what’s there, for what’s happening. There is something thorough about a good reading (although not exhaustive — it can never exhaust a text as a text is infinite).
And then there are plain old bad readings of things, readings that may very well be in bounds but that are bad for any number of reasons. A bad reading makes the thing less interesting, quashing its multivalences (think: writing on museum walls or much of ideology critique). A bad reading may just be obvious, the reader not really doing anything at all but echoing that which has already declared itself.
It’s a matter of posture and health, of the terms with which you come to the world. Do you seek to recognize the world? Or (re)create it? Of course, we often seek to confirm what we know. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is necessary. But when I come to a book or art or politics or sometimes just a glass of tequila, I want to see it anew, fresh, I want to spin it into new shapes and new modes of living. I want to be lead astray of myself, taken somewhere new and exciting. I want the world to shimmer and gleam.