Reading as shared experience

One of Bayard’s arguments in How to Talk About Books is that the difference between reading and not reading is hard to pinpoint. If I only skim a book, does that count as reading or not reading? If I read a book years ago, but can no longer remember it, isn’t that more akin to a state of not reading than of reading? Or, what if I have never opened a particular book, but can still speak about it authoritatively, because I know what other books it is similar to (or, put another way, I know its location in the library and what it means to be in that place)—is that a book that I have read, or a book that I have not read? Does it matter?

Someone with whom I spend a great deal of time is a significantly less avid reader than I am. Our arrangement is such that I read vigorously—making numerous recommendations about which books he should read—wherein he reads about one out of every dozen or so books I push in his direction. And yet a strange consequence of this coupling is that he can speak as authoritatively and compellingly as I can about books of which he has never so much as cracked the spine. It’s as if I’m reading for two, and the act of reading expands from the initial contact (me, alone, with book in hand) to the later event (the two of us, talking about books, drinking wine). In a certain sense, he has read these books, in that he is as familiar with them (albeit through different means) as I am.

Underneath this theory of reading is an elevation of the ideas that a book espouses over the experience of reading it. The challenge I see therein is that ideas cannot be completely decoupled from the act of reading—cannot escape the material condition of the written language from which they are born. For me, especially, an idea must be judged in part on the merits of the words that describe it. The best ideas are therefore married to the most beautiful language; a divorce diminishes them both.

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