Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pierre Bayard/HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ

This concept might well be anathema to BookBook readers, many of whom, I think, have a reverential, not to say obsessive-compulsive, attitude towards books and reading. One of Moonrat's few rules for this blog is that we should have read a book before we write about it; and 'reading' here generally seems to be taken to mean 'reading thoroughly, from end to end'. I worry sometimes that an excessive reverentiality towards books can be harmful, and in a notorious post on my own blog ("The 7 Habits Of Highly Efficient Readers") I did once playfully attack the notion - not entirely in earnest, you understand, but for the sake of debate - suggesting, for example, that browsing books and not finishing books were OK, and that one should try not to buy more books than one was actually going to be able to read.

Then along comes this French academic, Pierre Bayard, with his witty and provocative little treatise that overturns our whole notion of reading. BookBook regulars are probably going to be out of sympathy with his thesis, but it does make for an entertaining read.

His opening words immediately betray how unlike 'us' he is, and actually make me rather sad: "Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote to it...." No, definitely not one of us (although one suspects that his claim to dislike reading is disingenuous, a playful pose; in the book he displays a formidable breadth of reading).

However, Bayard does have many apt and interesting points to make in analysing how we relate to books, and how we use books to relate to each other. He points out that the concepts of 'reading' and 'non-reading' are not so clearcut as are generally assumed: the fallibility of human memory, and the subjectivity of our interaction with a book that can so strongly colour - perhaps distort - both our initial perceptions of it and our subsequent recollection of it, mean that even our knowledge of a book we think we have "read" may be highly shifting, uncertain, inaccurate. Bayard here cites the example of Montaigne, whose memory was so bad that he couldn't even recognise quotations from books he had written himself; he was forced to develop the habit of annotating the endpapers of every book he'd read, to remind himself that he had read it and what his opinion of it had been.

Bayard speaks up for the practice of partial reading, whether dipping in here and there at random, or a more planned sampling, or reading the "whole" book at speed - rather than the dutiful page-by-page and sentence-by-sentence plodding that I imagine most of us do. He also emphasises how much one can "know" about a book simply from our general knowledge, from other references to it in our culture, from reviews, from conversations. He proposes three categories (not mutually exclusive) for discussing books: books you've skimmed, books you've heard about, and books you have forgotten. He will never admit to having "read" a book in the conventional sense at all.

Even more teasingly, he celebrates 'non-reading' as an active and laudable practice. Given the infinity of published books, it is a hopeless task to try to read them all, or even a significant number of the 'best' of them. "Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening every other book in the universe." Bayard suggests that what is really important in 'cultural literacy' is 'orientation': not knowing the contents of any individual book, but knowing a book's place in our culture, its position within the wider system of books in general. The most extreme expression of this attitude is found in the figure of the librarian in Robert Musil's novel, The Man Without Qualities: this is a man so concerned with attaining an overview of the entirety of published literature that he regards it as a kind of sacred duty to refrain from reading any individual volume - "I never read a single book. Only the catalogues."

Bayard's philosophizing on the nature of reading can get a little heavy-going at times (and there are just a few occasions when Jeffrey Mehlman's translation makes it even more so), but this is regularly leavened with extended quotations and plot summaries of favourite books (I told you he wasn't really such an avid 'non-reader' as he pretends). It's a short and highly stimulating read, full of fascinating insights. Many of his points - for example, that we should not be inhibited by shame at the gaps in our cultural knowledge, that we can have valid and useful opinions on books we haven't actually read - could be valuable, liberating. And I think it's safe to say that his more extreme positions - that it's actually better not to read, that having no knowledge of a book can lead to a better discussion of it - are intended to be taken with a large pinch of salt. BookBook members, don't revile this man as an Antichrist. You should read his book. Or at least skim it.

6 comments:

Lisa said...

I'm really glad to read something about this because I've been intrigued by it. I suspect it may offer some great insights as to how to talk about Proust without reading him ;)

ChristineEldin said...

If I weren't so tired, I'd make a joke about skimming this post and it would be really funny. Because I write funny stuff.

On a separate note, I've been reading "The Gathering" and am almost finished. It's one of my favorite books, and I bought it based on your review. Now I see it's on the Orange List!

Still talking. Feel free to skim. I often have trouble reading blogs 'real time.' What I get is a mirror of a blog that's a week old. So I haven't seen anything new on your other blog for a while. Unless it's really not there. But I've been lurking, I promise!!

:-)

Cheryl said...

I'm all for skimming--if a book isn't holding my interest, I first skip ahead to a more interesting part, and if that doesn't seem to exist I just give up.

But I only review books I've read all the way through since I wouldn't really have much to say about a book I had eye-gutted.

Froog said...

Christine, I'm confused. I don't know 'The Gathering' and have never reviewed it. Unless it's one of my "forgotten books". Or were you addressing BookBook contributors in general.

I have TWO other blogs on Blogspot, and I am trying to keep writing regularly on them both, despite increasingly problems of access in censorship-crazy China.

Cheryl, you might be surprised. You should read Bayard and then reconsider whether you can't produce some interesting opinions on books you have only a partial knowledge of (or no knowledge at all!).

Froog said...

And yes, Lisa, there is a whole section on Proust. He is recommended for "dipping into at random" rather than reading whole. And there are some amusing extracts from the eulogy of Proust written by the French academic Paul Valery, who unashamedly makes it obvious that he's never read him and has no intention of doing so.

ChristineEldin said...

Froog! Sorry!!! I thought Moonrat wrote this. I really did skim this post because it was late when I read it.
:-)