Monday, 30 August 2010

To Swim or Not to Swim: Some Thoughts on Reading and Pierre Bayard

Swimming is first and foremost non-swimming. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong swimmers, the act of finding and diving into a body of water masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not finding and not diving into all the other bodies of water in the universe.

The paragraph above is a reworking of the following snippet from Pierre Bayard's book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Bayard's original text reads as follows:
Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

So why did I change Bayard's focus on reading to a focus on swimming? Well, quite simply to prove the absurdity of Bayard's claim. Reading is, after all, above anything else the process of reading, that is, the imbibing of a text; in fact any text. If you are doing this, continuously (or at least somewhat continuously), then you are reading despite the fact that you are not reading everything. In fact, the notion that reading intrinsically should mean "reading everything" is ludicrous at best.

Now, before going any further, I want to state outright that I have not read Bayard's book. And that I nevertheless (perhaps against my own better judgement) have decided to discuss it anyway. I am a firm believer in the notion that in order to truly discuss a work in-depth (especially for reviewing purposes) one needs to read the whole (or view the whole; or hear the whole; since this does not only apply to books). Because without the whole, we cannot fully know the text, cannot claim that sort of intimacy with it. So why have I decided to speak about Bayard anyway then, you ask? Well, if nothing else, I seem to have his blessing to do so, since his (seemingly) quasi-intellectual writings suggest that I in fact do not have to read his book to talk about it.

And on some level, I do agree. But more on that later.

I have not read Bayard, but I did hear about his book a while back. I noted its existence and have to say that it did not make much of an impression on me. At least not an impression that had me quickly adding it to my ever-growing wish lists at Amazon (brimming with stuff to keep in mind for getting somewhere down the line; sooner or later, perhaps never, but still...). So, heard of, but almost forgotten (at least placed in the very back of my mind), and now today brought to the fore after having encountered the quote I remodelled into my opening via an acquaintance and fellow literary scholar.

In fact, when I first read the quote, I did not know its source, but a quick google search led me to a review of it by Tara over at Revish.

Tara waxes on about Bayard's book. She happily states that "[t]he terms 'read' and 'unread' are meaningless; one should speak of books in terms of Heard of, Skimmed, Forgotten, or Unknown." I take it that these "new" terms are Bayard's and I instinctively draw back from them. Do not get me wrong. There are naturally books that we have heard of even though we have not read them (and this was true way before Bayard thought of it, surely). We may even talk about such books in terms of their historical significance, their cultural context and their journey through the ages (depending on how far they have travelled thus far). Literary scholarship does in fact do this activity and have done so for a long time. This is not a critique against literary scholarship, because while the proper (if you will forgive my use of that word) discussion of a text's content does require that one, you know, reads said content (and preferably carefully), such a reading will never reveal any of the aforementioned categories (historical significance, cultural context and the journey of any work through the ages); the reason quite naturally being that none of these categories are intrinsic to the text itself, albeit tied, and thereby important, to it. We can thus discuss the importance of Shakespeare without reading Shakespeare, but we cannot fruitfully discuss the contents of Shakespeare's texts without reading them. This does not imply that it would be a downside to having read some of the texts for the former activity, just that it need not be a necessity (nor by default a help either, though I am quite certain it could not hurt).

So, Skimmed, Forgotten and Unknown... these categories also exist (and also pre-date Bayard), but I nevertheless still pull back. There seem to be categories missing. Is Bayard (at least in Tara's reading) suggesting that there is nothing between Skimming and Forgotten? There seems to be a vast gap filled with various degrees of in-depth readings, re-readings, more or less remembered texts – all of which Bayard and Tara seem to have perhaps Skimmed through and then Forgotten.

In her review, Tara writes:
Much as a mathematician can measure a splash, and without seeing the splash occur, can determine the size, weight and trajectory of the object that created it; one can know a book without reading it by observing the affect it has on society, listening (or reading) trusted opinions and probing its connection to other works you are familiar with. Talking about books is unrelated to reading books, which is unrelated to remembering the books that we have read. And here is the realization that alleviated years of unknown anxiety, no one has a perfect recollection of a book that they have read. You begin to forget even before you finish the page. And as each person is an organic entity and continues to change, even if you took meticulous notes, your interaction with a book today would be drastically different in one year, five years and in ten years.
But this is a false observation. The idea does not even hold water on its own premises. After all, Tara moves on to claim that "[w]hat matters, then, about reading, is the book's effect on you, and it's impact on your internal library, those books that you carry with you in your heart and mind, either because you believe their importance in the cultural collective library or because of your personal connection with them." I agree in full with this latter statement; but it is incompatible with her (and presumably Bayard's) mathematician's analogy. Mathematicians can calculate "the weight and trajectory of the object which created [the splash]," but if what truly matters about reading lies in its effect on its reader, on your personal experience of the book, then how can this effect be calculated mathematically without reading it? Especially given Tara's (and again presumably Bayard's) quite adequate notion that "your interaction with a book today would be drastically different in one year, five years and in ten years." For the sake of clarity, I would amend that "would be" to a "could be" if I were to subscribe to that fully. After all, change may be more or less continuous in any person's life, but I would argue that the degrees with which it is affected varies very much on an individual basis, and this would presumably very much play into the interactive process between text and reader.

Furthermore, there seems to be an extraordinary focus on "remembering the books that we have read," and even more precisely on the inadequate manner in which this remembering is performed. Tara (presumably acting as a ventriloquist's puppet for Bayard) claims that this act is, in fact, unrelated to reading. In a line of asinine quasi-intellectual thinking, that claim still has to be in the run for the title of one of the dumbest nuggets in the lot. The fact that memory itself is notoriously unreliable; that it is far from exact or even necessarily stable throughout time; is intrinsic to the very notion of memory itself. If we accept Bayard's premise that remembering books are unrelated to reading the books, we must by default also accept that anything we remember is entirely unrelated to that which we remember. Logically speaking, the fact that our memories are flawed does not equate there not being an actual origin to them. In order to remember a book we have read, we must first have read it, and that causality suggests a relation to me.

There seems to be an underlying tendency in Bayard's book that I do think is relevant; that is, that we should read what we want to read; that we should not worry too much about cultural expectations; that it is all right sometimes to know certain works more or less referentially (i.e. that we know a little about them without knowing them intimately); that there should be no cultural stigma in not having read this work or that... and thereby in essence be free to enjoy reading.

However, there is an overtone of fudging one's reading about the whole enterprise that I do not like. From the title and onwards, there is a rather nasty suggestion that we should need to talk about books that we have not read. Such a suggestion is by no means liberating the reader from cultural expectations, but rather asks the "reader" to fudge it, to pretend to having read certain books by talking about them (presumably in order to be part of the conversation). Needless to say, perhaps, such practices are nothing new. There is an entire industry of York Notes and whatnots allowing students to "cheat within reason," to get to know a text not through the text itself but through somebody else's reading of it. Depending on what one needs out of the work, such material may well provide the information needed for a specific discursive setting. All literary discussions, as I touched upon earlier, are not necessarily rooted in the text themselves. But there is a step between that and more or less suggesting that reading a work does not require actually reading it.

And there's the rub (to borrow from the Bard), because while we should feel free to read that which we want to read, and not to read that which we do not want (though in some cases, it may admittedly be beneficial for us to do so), the premise upon which we should base that argument should, I think, be that there is no shame in saying any of the phrases, "no, I have not read that;" "I actually do not know of that book;" or "I started on that, but found it dull and stopped reading it." There is a leap from moving away from the shame and the stigma of not having read, and pretending to know more than one does.

But hey, what do I know? After all, I have not actually read Bayard.

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