Recently I’d started to feel slightly ashamed of my large and growing pile of ‘to-read’ books. Like Austen’s Emma, I make ambitious reading lists and plans, but consistently fail to finish as many books as I want to. I’m partly able to alleviate this shame with a sort of ‘shoot for the moon, land among the stars’ attitude (an expression I’ve discovered has a murky history), but it still lingers. Luckily, a salutary book found its way into my hands a few weeks ago, Pierre Bayard’s provocatively titled ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ (thanks to the prompting of this note by @DRMacIver). With tongue somewhat in cheek, Bayard pokes fun at the culture of literature, and the minor hypocrisies and elisions of ignorance that sustain it.
There are more books in the relatively modestly-sized bookshop at which I work than I will likely read in my lifetime. And yet, at least within certain milieux, some of us feel called upon to demonstrate our knowledge of particular books, and feel ashamed if in truth we haven’t. This is perhaps more of a pressing concern to those directly engaged in writing or critiquing books, as Bayard admits, and it does seem that in general our culture prizes literature less by the year. Nevertheless, assuming that you as an individual care about books, and you talk to other people who care about them, I think this holds true.
Bayard’s take on the situation is that it can mean many different things to have read a book, and that it is perfectly reasonable to both judge and discuss at length books which you have only skimmed, or have in fact never looked at. Indeed, he suggests that most of our conversations about books are in fact about screen books (following Freud’s category of ‘screen memories’), which are ‘substitute objects we create for the occasion’. He suggests that the screen book is based in large part on a person’s inner book, an unconscious set of mythic representations that filters their perception of the books they encounter. To complete the trio, he proposes a phantom book as the object that emerges at the interaction of exchanges between personal screen books, themselves refracted through our inner books.
The second and third parts of Bayard’s book concern the encounters one might have in out there in the world discussing books, but I was particularly struck by the chapter on ‘Books You Have Forgotten’, (his other three ways of not reading are ‘Books You Don’t Know’, ‘Books You Have Heard About’ and ‘Books You Have Skimmed’). Here Bayard’s argument takes a philosophical turn, pointing out that as soon as you start reading a book, you have already begun to forget it. Drawing on Montaigne’s writing about his own forgetfulness, even to the point of forgetting things he has himself written, Bayard notes mordantly, “What we preserve of the books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”. The argument is almost eating itself with the suggestion that Montaigne’s extreme forgetfulness “seems to erase any distinction between reading and non-reading”, and that we might “conceive of reading as a loss”.
So, how does this shed light on my reading woes? I was lucky enough to have a tutor at university who set us to read Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’, about an infinite library. Through permutation of the letters of the alphabet, it contains every possible book, and the librarians who slowly journey through its hexagonal galleries have spent millennia devising various competing metaphysics and mythologies of how the library is supposed to work. If I learned anything from this (I can’t remember exactly what I was supposed to be learning), it was that the infinite granularity of the world is both dizzying and, on occasion, strangely comforting. Any individual book you read represents a choice not read all of the other books available to you, i.e. every other book that exists. There are at least two directions that this thought can lead you: either to a kind of paralysis, of never feeling sure if you’re reading the right things, or to an obsession with identifying key texts to read and digesting them as fast as possible. But there is another path: owning your personal route through the information overload, and treating it as a kind of exploration, with both gain and loss an inevitable part of the journey. Taking Bayard to heart, as well as a recent Malcolm Ocean blogpost, and a lovely newsletter by Adventsnore, I’m going to focus on reading whatever seems the most compelling at the time. Rather than ploughing through things I’ve lost interest in for the sake of completing them (and adding them to my goodreads count!), I’ll try to follow the threads that are bringing me joy and insight, and feel a little less shame about the 75% unread Proust on my bookshelf.
Stuff I saved to Evernote this month:
- Why it’s time you (re)started a blog
- A brilliant allegory on Zen, Tantra and Dzogchen
- A reminder that decision making can have multiple error rates
- A retrospective on a decade of ambient music
- How to construct objective religious history without ditching visionary material
- A fascinating tale of German/Austrian artist emigres to L.A. in the 30s and 40s