Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bayard throws the book at books

Just finished a wonderful little book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Professor Pierre Bayard. It’s about books of course, one of those books (sorry texts) that only French academics seem to write, and is written with, dare I say it - panache. It’s not flippant but a deep analysis of the ambiguous role of readers and books. We take books too seriously, forgetting that many are bought and not read, skimmed or talked about as if they had been read, even forgotten. Bayard throws the book at books.

Reading is forgetting
Books have a special status as ‘almost objects of worship’ and non-readers are stigmatised. Yet reading is often non-reading, as we forget most of what we read almost as quickly as it is read. As we forge forward, content is forgotten in the wake of memory that disappears behind. Most reading is forgetting. He’s really on to something here. I habitually underline, mark, comment and summarise on the books I read. Yet it is almost taboo to underline, mark books, and blasphemous to tear out a page or chapter Life is short and books are long. It’s OK to skim, as many books are padded out to conform to the standard £9.99/250 page norm. In fact, for many, the fact that most of what you read will be forgotten, means a summary is adequate.

Academics  cook the books
As an academic, he is at his best in describing a world he knows well, where academics discuss and teach books to students who have also not read the book. Teaching pressurises teachers into talking about books they have not read. Students respond by pretending to read long reading lists they never in fact read. Short-cuts are taken by all. It's a game where reading is the facade and non-reading the reality.

Every trick in the book
What’s clever is the way he hauls in authors to support his case. Montaigne’s honest reflections on reading, Oscar Wilde’s ‘100 worst books’ (books we should not read), David Lodge’s expose of the Academy’s dependence on unread books. Umberto Eco, Balzac, Green, Shakespeare, Joyce, Proust and others are all used to build a case, not against books, but against the bogus idea of books as being pure and sacrosanct. These chapters are wonderful and perfectly skimmable!

Book groupthink
Excessive reading can strip readers of imagination, especially the narrowcast reading of modern novels, the books one is felt socially compelled to read. This is reading by the book, a Richard and Judy show. Book groups can trap readers this way, cornering readers into reading second rate contemporary novels and coming up with second rate critiques. Not for book groups the difficulties of Plato, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, or Virgil, Milton and Dante. Not for book groups the intellectual challenge of science, economics and politics (unless its a racy biography). Book groups lead to groupthink.

You can’t judge a book by its lover
So reading, and the culture of reading, is not what you think it is. It’s full of deceit, snobbery and false claims. Bayard exposes many of these taboos. Take a leaf out of his book and see reading, not as being synonymous with books, but in all its wonderful variations in terms of style, length, authors and media. New media and self-publishing are tearing apart the myth that reading is synonymous with books. Reading in many ways has freed itself from the tyranny of books.

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Anonymous Rina Tripathi said...

Why we do we read. Sometimes we are very lonely, I know there is family and there might be friends, but busy in their respective lives. There are hours and there is this need for companionship. One picks up a book and is drawn into another life or some thoughts, this breaks the solitary existence. Humans might look very busy, very stressed for time, but inside most of us have a vast empty space. We crave to fill it with some joy and this brings us to actively seek reading.

Even before reading we love hearing stories as children so there is something beautiful about suddenly entering another life's story or know another human's mind. Just read ' The Little Prince' and it made me smile. Sometimes I feel I am so close to knowing about this world and existence and the very second moment I am like a wonder-struck child gazing out through these senses.Maybe at forty I am able to figure out life. One can survive without books but what luxury it is to have your favorite meal with a book spread open before you!

3:13 PM  
Blogger jay said...

Great post! I had to link to you from the Un-Book site that Dave Gray and I maintain.

1:28 AM  
Blogger Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I've heard good things about Bayard. His second book in translation (Sherlock Holmes was Wrong) also comes recommended.

But isn't the "bogus idea of books as being pure and sacrosanct" one maintained by those who don't read or, rather, those who read only Groupthink books and constantly feel the need to "confess" they haven't read some perceived Classic and thereby failed to absorb its mystical gifts? It would be countered if for one moment they attended to the real thing and not all the circular chatter.

Unfortunately the pressures of socially compelled reading will always be dominant. The few who read Nietzsche and Dante for "pure pleasure" will wonder where the difficulties you refer to are. (Why do we persist in this false opposition of "accessible" and "difficult"? If it's written in English, who is it excluding?). There are mysteries in them for sure but why read if not to encounter the mysterious? Perhaps these are pre-skimmed when readers are freed from the book.

For this reason I would say Reading is impossible without books. Books are unknown to men of knowledge - and with good reason.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Paul Angileri said...

Hmm. I see the point being made, but I think it's ill-considered. I posted a response to this.

6:50 PM  

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