Saturday, August 30

How to talk about books you haven't read

Note: This is an unedited draft. It's pretty long! But I was getting a message that my attempt to save as a draft might fail. So I posted it. And that worked. Go figure.

Pierre Bayard's "How to talk about books you haven't read" is a delight. At first I thought the book was a hilarious spoof, but I became persuaded that though hilarious it's not a spoof: his words ring true. Bayard, a lecturer at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst, is very clever and very funny.

Reading the "classics" would already take more years than we have, and more books are pumped out every month, as every book lover knows to her joy and despair. Bayard describes three cultural canons about reading: the obligation to read (one must!), the obligation to read thoroughly, and the agreement that one must read a book thoroughly to discuss it well.

He finds, rather, that a close reading of a book can hinder, not help, one's understanding of it; that skimming the book for highlights, listening to other people talk about the book, and reading reviews and discussions often serve admirably.

"The result of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions has been to generate a widespread hypocrisy on the subject of books that we actually have read. . . Among specialists, mendacity is the rule, and we tend to lie in proportion to the significance of the book under consideration."

Bayard uses a shorthand code when he refers to books.

UB book unknown to me
SB book I have skimmed
HB book I have heard about
FB book I have forgotten
++ extremely positive opinion
+ positive opinion
- negative opinion
-- extremely negative opinion

Is a book which you have read and forgotten still a book you have read? Bayard writes,
"Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable."
This is where the book really pulled me in. I'm an avid reader, but the more books I read the more easily I forget. Why do we book lovers then strive to read more, to spend our reading time on "good books?" Why to we read lists of the classics, the 1000 Books to Read Before You Die? What are we so afraid we'll miss? What loss or lack is we don't read, read, read? So many books, so little time, indeed.

When I was in library school, I started to read outside my habitual genres and topics. I wanted to be ready for any reader's question about books. I soon saw that was impossible, but I found new topics of interest, new books to add to my "someday" list. That was when I started to read the New York Times best-seller books. Just so I'd know if someone asked. Has anyone asked? Only a few times. But that didn't stop me. I wanted more, more, more. I browsed the internet for book review and book recommendation sites. I subscribed to Powell's newsletter. More books! More books! I quickly found I couldn't read them all, but I still requested more books than any human could read. Now I planned to "examine" them. Read the first chapter, a random section from the center, and the last chapter. It's become like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, a flood of books.

Ask people about their all-time favorite book. If they can pick one, it is usually one from childhood, or early reading years. When we hadn't read so many books, each one had a more profound impact. If we took a breath between books, and lived with it for a while, it stayed with us. Now we swim in information and entertainment. It's a commodity. Something else to acquire and consume, almost indiscriminately. If we forget what we read, why read?

Most of the book choices I make now are based on reviews. I read so many new books now, or old ones that have been called to mind by something else I've read, or a list of don't miss classics. I used to browse. Remember browsing? Not many people browse anymore. I used to pick out a lot of books that turned out to be just average. The great ones stood out more.

Now I read more really good books in a month than I used to in a year, more well-written and cogent non-fiction, more award-winning fiction. I feel lucky that this is so; that reviews can at least point me in an interesting direction. I close the cover of another great book, relishing what I've just read. What a standout! This will stay with me. But I forget. I've always said that if books were men, I'd have a hundred children. I just can't say no. But there's a downside to this voracity. There's always another encounter and another.

I realize that people still read books now and some people actually love them, but in 1946 in the village our feelings about books . . . went beyond love. It was as if we didn't know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn't simply read books; we became them.
Anatole Broyard, When Kafka Was the Rage. Vintage Press, 1977.

I love this quotation from Broyard, though I can't help but notice that he is speaking of a time in his youth, 30 years past. We open our hearts more to books when we are young. Now we have lived into the answers of so many questions we used to have.

It might be true, then, that the more we read, the more we forget. Montaigne was a forgetful reader, and Bayard (yes, I'm back at "How to talk about books . . . ") quotes from Montaigne's Essays, "And if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness." Further, Montaigne writes,

"I leaf through books. I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else's. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued: the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget."

In fact recent research on memory has shown just that: we do not accurately recall the source of our ideas and opinions. The opinion formed may remain, but the memory of the source drops away. So dreams, articles from the New York Times, someone's blog, talk radio, textbooks, movies, and more, all contribute to our opinions and ideas, and over time, all come to be weighed equally as sources of truth.

I read that somewhere. I can't just now remember where, but I think it was a good source. [Found it: Robert Burton, On being certain: believing you are right even when you’re not.)

The House of Paper (Carlos Maria Dominguez) is a parable (103 small pages) about the same remembering and forgetting, Brauer, a book-lover and book-collector, acquires so many books that his skimpy cataloging is overwhelmed with the sheer volume of his volumes. He can no longer find anything; can no longer trace sources of ideas and opinions. In despair and madness, he builds a house of his books; hires someone to lay them in cement like bricks and lives in this bleak house until one day his fury mounts and he hammers gaping holes into the house. He regrets this and hires the mason again to repair the house, but it can't be fixed, and eventually all that is left are a few scattered remains of books on a cold windy beach.

The story is narrated by man trying to put the story together some years later, and he talks to one of Brauer's neighbors, Delgado, who also collects books. Delgado says, "To build up a library is to create a life. It's never just a random collection of books. . . they seem to constitute a collection, but I would say that's an illusion. We pursue some topics, and at the end of a certain length of time we find ourselves defining worlds, or if you prefer, we are tracing the steps of a journey, the advantage being that we can conserve its traces. . .we start with a reference to a book we don't have, then when we have acquired that one, it leads us on to another.

The most famous example of this pursuit is in 84 Charing Cross Road. Helene Hanff begins a project of self-education with a book by Arthur Quiller-Couch. When she comes to a reference to a book (idea, opinion, author) she doesn't know, she writes to the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London to order the sometimes-obscure texts. At the time she wrote the book the transatlantic correspondence, and the self-education project, had lasted 25 years.

Elisabeth Ellington (A year of reading : a month-by-month guide to classics and crowd-pleasers for you and your book group ) calls this "serial obsession." You are intrigued by a subject and pursue it avidly -- "and then the fancy passes by, and nothing shall remain (A. E. Housman)." Some of the things I have been serially addicted to reading about are Byzantine mosaics, Belle Epoque New York, graphic design, survival stories, seasons, Brenda Ueland, the Sages of Chelm, fools, tricksters, Art Nouveau, mixed-media artists, Prague, the Vatican Archives, and folk art.

Then there are the perennial obsessions that start as hot infatuations but continue over time. For me, and many of my ilk, this includes books about books, reading, writing, authors, libraries and librarians, manuscripts, publishing, paper, book plates, book collectors: everything book and print related (hence the title of this blog, Paper Baubles). (
A year of reading was thus a double hit: a book about seasonal reading. ) Asperger's and autism, gardening, color, and phenology -- there's more to the list but you get the point. I find a happy glow spreading through me just contemplating this list. These are lists of some of my great pleasures.

And that brings us back around to answer the question, why do we read? And read so much? And feel the pressure of so many books, so little time? It's not difficult really. We did I even ask? We read to make new friends, enter new worlds, and experience both new and familiar pleasures.

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