Friday, June 27, 2008

In Which We Talk About Different Ways Of Not Reading

Pierre Bayard describes in How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read four ways of not reading books:

Books You Don't Know: I don't recall a whole lot about this section. At this point, I was still wondering if Bayard was joking.

Books You Have Skimmed: I have to admit, I've had to do this many times. There are a lot of books out there that I feel I should be familiar with but find really dreadful. So once I decide that I'm too old to be wasting valuable hours of my life reading this dribble, I start skimming so that I have a feel for the work. Seriously, I think it's much better to have a feel for a book then to have no knowledge of it at all. As it turns out, Bayard agrees with me.

Books You Have Heard Of: Reading reviews, articles, and blog posts about books can give you a handle on the books' place in the booky scheme of things, or the collective library, as Bayard calls it.

Books You Have Forgotten: Sadly, we're going to forget a lot of what we read.

You know the way of not reading that Bayard doesn't cover in his book? Books you have read and not understood. Sophie's World comes immediately to my mind. Perhaps Bayard, being a French intellectual and all, has never experienced this kind of not reading.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Which We Talk About Our Collective Library

When Pierre Brayard talks about not reading, he's not talking about reading in the sense of an enjoyable experience, becoming one with a character, or any of that good stuff. He's talking about acquiring knowledge about how a book relates to the rest of the world.

Societies, Brayard suggests, maintain what he calls a "collective library," meaning a virtual collection of books that the culture is familiar with. (You know, the way most Americans are familiar with characters from The Wizard of Oz without having read the book or maybe even having seen the movie.) One of his points is that sometimes a book is more significant for its relationship to other books in the collective library than it is for its own content. If individuals understand or at least know about the book's significance, they can talk about the book in that way. And it would be very legitimate for them to do so.

Imagine, if you will, that it is the year 2057. A turn-of-the-century series of children's books about a kid named Harry Potter is oh, so yesterday. No one reads them, but everyone knows about Harry because of all kinds of literary references, movie references, maybe some song references. Harry Potter, though not read, is part of the collective library.

Say you are a graduate student in the year 2057, and you wouldn't read any of the Harry Potter books on a bet. But you are aware that the appearance of Harry Potter in the 1990s brought masses of adult readers to children's literature, encouraged serial novels, knocked problem novels off their pedestal in kidlit, and popularized fantasy. Knowing the significance of the series in relation to other books is arguably as important as anything in the books and certainly gives you something to discuss if Harry P. comes up when you're trapped in your advisor's office.

In fact, there are probably many books we should know something about even if we haven't read them.


Monday, June 23, 2008

In Which We Begin To Talk About A Book We've Read

Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read isn't really about faking it. Au contraire . It's very much about reading. In fact, it's a far more interesting and heartfelt discussion of reading than the "classic" How to Read a Book, which I'm guessing has destroyed the will to read in generations of Americans.

Bayard's tone is often slightly tongue-in-cheek, particularly in the early chapters. In fact, for a while I wondered if he was making up a couple of the authorities he cited early on. But, no, there really was a Robert Musil and a Paul Valery. And I've just admitted I'd never heard of them. Yikes.

But I am talking about them.

One of the many interesting things about this book called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read is that each chapter includes a discussion of an author or a work that Bayard, if all his footnotes are to be believed, has read. All the books he discusses, either nonfiction or fiction, included a discussion of avoiding reading or a character who is in some kind of situation in which he can be said to have to talk about books he hasn't read. Bayard does more than use this material to support his own arguments. He makes these books sound interesting.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Maybe I Should Read This

I didn't have good luck reading a book on how to read books. Perhaps I should try this one--How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard.

Actually, Bayard sounds very interesting. He says that many people (at least in France) "see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of 'knowledge'...But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book."

I think they may throw the word "intellectual" around more freely in France than we do here. I mean, the only time I hear it, it's being used as a slur. (As in, "Why, thank you, intellectuals, for telling us we don't know how to read.") But once I got past my first knee-jerk response, I read that quote of Bayard's and went, "Mais oui!"

Thanks to artsJournal for the link.

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