This is a picture of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard. As you can see, I tape-flagged the bejesus out of it when I was reading it; each of those tape flags represents a passage I found thought-provoking, or a pleasing quote, or something that struck me as profound.
It's a library book. It was due back three days ago. I am now paying 20 cents/day for the privilege of having it sitting around on my table. I can't take it back to the library until I clean out those tape flags; I can't clean out the tape flags until I've processed them, thought about what they mean, tried to integrate Bayard's words and ideas into my mental picture of the world of books.
I want to do this even though Bayard himself would call it a futile undertaking:
When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands. [quote lifted from Goodreads]
Futile or not, I want to think a bit about why I love this book so much that I have now read it twice, and may well read it again.
The title is a playful one, and Bayard's playfulness is part of why I love the book. One of his arguments is that it isn't necessary to have read a book to have an opinion about it, and he creates a shorthand for his relationship to books, and footnotes each book with this shorthand the first time it's mentioned. A book can be UB, SB, HB, or FB: unheard-of, skimmed, heard about, or forgotten. Where is RB, "a book I have read"? It doesn't appear in the list of abbreviations that preceded the text. This is him being deliberately contrary:
It will be observed that this system of notations is valuable as well for its omissions, specifically RB (book that has been read) and NRB (book that has not been read), the very notations one might have expected, which will never be used. It is precisely in opposition to this kind of artificial distinction that the book is organized, a distinction conveying an image of reading that makes it hard to think about the way we actually experience it. (xix)I think we'd agree with Bayard if we reflected on it for a moment. We regularly form opinions of works we haven't read or seen, in part to help us decide whether it's worth reading or seeing them, but also based on the opinions of others we trust, or the previous work of the creator, or our knowledge of how the work fits into what Bayard calls the "collective library." Although he is only talking about books, the collective library contains movies, TV shows, music, comic books, and more. If you have ever chosen not to read a book that all your friends are raving about because it's not the kind of thing you normally like, you're forming an opinion without reading it.
Bayard, of course, is interested in the literary canon, to the extent it still exists, and he references a game among faculty in literature where the winner is the one who confesses to not having read the very most canonical work. I think the winner in the game he describes claims not to have read Hamlet. But Bayard thinks it's perfectly OK not to have read Hamlet; he says that it is possible to know everything you need to know about the play without having read the whole text. The thing you need to know most about Hamlet is where it fits into the "collective library," how it is positioned culturally and in relation to other books.
Again, there's truth in this, and here Bayard is doing serious work, in thinking about the sociology of books and the cultural capital of books, as something separate from the books themselves. A book's position in the collective library is sometimes more relevant than the book itself: it matters to know who Gertrude Stein was, and what she was trying to do, if you want to understand early 20th century culture, but there is little pleasure to be had from simply reading most of her work, which is strange and tiresome. The experience of reading Stein is enhanced by knowing who she was and what her intentions were, her cultural position. But there are few people, I think, who can sincerely say they read Stein for pleasure (and here's a place I'd add another element to Bayard's shorthand rating system, to account for how you can have a high opinion of a writer and her work, as I do for Stein, without actually liking the work very much).
My relationship to certain works—Moby-Dick comes to mind, and Joyce's Ulysses—is very much a relationship Bayard describes: I know just about everything it is necessary to know about these books, but I have never read either of them. I know who the authors were and what movements they were part of; what inspired them and why they wrote as they did; who was, in turn, inspired by them. I can tell you, in detail, what the books are about, and I can even quote passages from both (and not just "Call me Ishmael" and "yes I said yes I will Yes," either). Especially with Moby-Dick, I am capable of having a very informed conversation about these books. Which I haven't read. (Again, I need another classification: PB, a book I plan to read someday. Moby-Dick: SB, PB++; Ulysses PB+.)
It often seems to me that it is necessary to know things about a book in order to appreciate the book at all. I am disdainful of lists of books aimed at creating culturally knowledgeable people, because it isn't enough to have read, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Yellow Wallpaper or Mrs Dalloway's Party (FB++, RB+, RB-). To read for pleasure, what's between the covers is all that's needed. But if a person wants to read as a way of participating in culture, they need to know where these books are shelved in the collective library at least as much as they need to know what's in them.
I read nearly the complete works of William Shakespeare as a middle-schooler. I liked more of it than I understood. My impetus was a burning desire to be a part of the culture of literature, to have read what it was most important to read (and to be precocious about it, to boot). But I didn't begin to appreciate Shakespeare until a high school Shakespeare class and a couple of visits to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. As an undergraduate in English, I learned more about how Shakespeare fit into the literary culture of his own time, and how he influenced the future. As an undergraduate in Women's Studies, I learned to look at his work and his influence in a more complex way. As a graduate student in literature, I was absolutely blown away by a course in Renaissance Literature in which, instead of the usual Heaping Dose of Will Shakespeare With a Side of Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, we read slave narratives, the journals of European explorers, advertisements meant to attract colonists and investors, a long poem about how to manage your plantation in the West Indies (apparently how-to poems were a whole genre at the time; who knew?). And then, our professor gave us The Tempest. We'd all read it before, of course, but this time, steeped in that context, the play turned into a bomb that exploded all our prior understandings.
It is always good to read The Tempest, and if you read it as an adventure tale and a source of poetry (Full fathom five thy father lies! Our little lives are rounded by a sleep! O brave new world, that has such people in it!), that is good. But it is best, perhaps, to read it knowing something of the shelf it sits on in the collective library. If you want to be a citizen of the library and not just a reader of books, it can matter more to know where the book is on the shelf than to ever actually take it down and open it.
Bayard takes on other questions that I also find very fruitful: What does it mean to read a book, if you will ultimately forget most of what you read? If you have forgotten a book, can you still claim to have read it? What does it mean to read a book if you know from the outset that what you read is not the same book the author wrote, or the same book that another reader reads? But I don't suppose I have time to go into all of that. This is a short book but very densely packed, and it is witty all get-out:
Chapter XII. Speaking About Yourself
(in which we conclude, along with Oscar Wilde, that the appropriate time span for reading a book is ten minutes, after which you risk forgetting that the encounter is primarily a pretext for writing your autobiography)I could write about this book for days, but I don't have time for that, and someone has placed a hold on it and wants me to return in to the library so they can read it. I will satisfy myself with browsing through my tape flags as I remove them, and sharing a few quotes and letting Bayard speak for himself for a bit. The challenge has been to not include too many, and I have failed: I have included too many. But I have fallen short of re-typing the entire manuscript, so that's some consolation.
There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and this in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. (3)
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 opening all the other books in the universe. (6)
As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any books in particular, but of being able to find your bearing within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. (10-11)
Breaking with that critical tradition, [Paul] Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce the work to that act of creation. (16)
The logical implication of this theory—that cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book—is that it is ultimately unnecessary to have handled a book to have a sense of it and to express your thoughts on it. The act of reading is disassociated from the material book... (32)
[Umberto] Eco's novel [The Name of the Rose] illustrates that the books we talk about are only glancingly related to "real" books—indeed, what else would we expect?— and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion. (44)
Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable. It extends to the point where it's as though I haven't read the book at all, so that in effect I find myself rejoining the ranks of non-readers, where I should no doubt have remained in the first place. At this point, saying we have read a book becomes essentially a form of metonymy. When it comes to books, we never read more than a portion of greater or lesser length, and that portion is, in the longer or shorter term, condemned to disappear. When we talk about books, then, to ourselves and others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances. (47-8)
But fear of repeating himself is not the only embarrassing consequence of forgetting his own books. Another is that Montaigne does not even recognize his own texts when they are quoted in his presence, leaving him to speak about texts he hasn't read even though he has written them. (55) [Note from Su: I love this because it happened to me recently. I ran into someone who remembered me from the days when I was regularly performing my stories on stage. "I always especially loved your story about X," she said, and I had no idea what story she was talking about. It's possible that she was confusing my story with someone else's story or poem, or projecting her own interpretation onto a story I remember but don't recognize in her description, but it is equally likely that I have completely forgotten a story I used to perform, which is to say a story I had written and which I very likely knew well enough to recite from memory. It wouldn't be the first time it happened, and apparently I'm in good company with Montaigne.]
Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader...has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it.... It might then be said that the chances of wounding an author by speaking about his book are all the greater when we love it. Beyond the general expressions of satisfaction that tend to create a sense of common ground, there is every likelihood that trying to be more precise in our exposition of why we appreciated the book will be demoralizing for him. In the attempt, we force him into an abrupt confrontation with everything that is irreducible in the other, and thus irreducible in him and in the words through which he has attempted to express himself. (98-99)
The acknowledgment that books are mobile objects rather than fixed objects is indeed destabilizing, since it reflects back our own uncertainty—which is to say, our folly. (148)
The paradox of reading is that the path towards ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of book that a good reader engages in—a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there. (178)
To become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations drawn from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely.... How can one deny...that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art? Just think of all the skills it calls into play—listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative—and you will surely find yourself convinced. (182-3)
To show [students], instead, that a book is reinvented with every reading would give them the means to emerge unscathed, and even with some benefit, from a multitude of difficult situations.... As we have seen exemplified by numerous authors, the entirety of our culture opens up to those with the ability to cut the bonds between discourse and its object, and to speak about themselves.
The key, in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation. What better gift could you make to a student than to render him sensitive to the art of invention—which is to say, self-invention? All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists. (184)
|Denuded, and ready to be forgotten.|