Provocative, cheeky, and very French. The title belies the real subject, which is an argument against reading and for writing. The book that convinced me to launch this site.
Can the conversation around a book replace the act of reading it?
How to read voraciously, without slipping through the looking glass.
…what is interesting about a text—which is not the work itself but the qualities it shares with others—might be best perceived by a critic who closes his eyes in the presence of the work and thinks, instead, about what it may be.Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, page 29
There was a time when I read books in, shall we say, the romantic manner, which is to mean all the way through and usually in one sitting. I had, at one time, an enormous patience for spending hour upon hour with a single text; on rainy days, I sometimes still do. But more often than not, I read a dozen books or more at once, flitting from one to the other, looking for the connections, finding the spaces between them where I can inhabit safely. This is one way of “not reading” which Bayard rescues and promotes, in that it rejects the singular book in favor of the entire library. And, perhaps more importantly, it recognizes that to lose oneself in another’s work is to fail to make a work of your own: only by pushing books away does the writer find her voice.
At its root, this is a vision of reading couched in discontent. It is discontent—or, more completely, a sense that any given text is insufficient—that makes us close the book at hand and tilt our head back in thought. What resides on the page is often just a catalyst for further thinking (or writing). It’s what feeds the culture around books—for a book that is never talked about is like the tree that falls in the forest: it leaves behind no evidence that it ever made a sound.
He was a haphazard reader who felt content, at times, with plot summaries and articles in encyclopedias, and who confessed that, even though he had never finished Finnegan’s Wake, he happily lectured on Joyce’s linguistic monument. He never felt obliged to read a book down to the last page. His library (which like that of every other reader was also his autobiography) reflected his belief in chance and the rules of anarchy. “I am a pleasure-seeking reader: I’ve never allowed my sense of duty to have a hand in such a personal matter as that of buying books.”Manguel, With Borges, page 31
No wonder that Borges is (postumously) in Bayard’s court, since he was one who loved the library with more verve than he could love any single book.
A reminder about why we read:
Sometimes thinkers make their greatest discoveries while appreciating and interpreting the genius of others. It is as though, in the very process of doing justice to the superiority of another individual, we awaken something superior in ourselves.Grudin, Design and Truth, page 85
Of course, one could argue that such interpretation should be done at a distance, lest our own superiority drown in another’s.
Few fallacies are more dangerous or easier to fall into than that by which, having read a given book, we assume that we will continue to know its contents permanently, or, having mastered a discipline in the past, we assume that we control it in the present. Philosophically speaking, “to learn” is a verb with no legitimate past tense.Grudin, Time and the Art of Living, page 110
I’m amazed at how quickly I can unlearn a book read last year, let alone years ago. I think this is part of the attraction of a physical library for me: it’s a record of what I’ve read before, without which I would almost certainly forget. See also:
Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.
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 the 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 to others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, arranged as a function of our current circumstances.Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, page 47
This, of course, is what makes talking about books interesting: we are not talking about books so much as we are talking about ourselves.