Saturday, 5 January 2008

I really want to read this. Ironic

How to talk about books you haven't read by Pierre Bayard.

I can't quite believe that this book is actually proposing what Lynne Truss's review of it seems to say it is proposing:

The only thing wrong with this volume is its anglicised “How to” title, suggestive of an airy bluffer’s guide. In fact, this is a rich, meaty and immensely enjoyable essay that challenges the “artificial distinction” between “I have read that book” and “I have not read that book”. It is about where legitimate critical opinions really come from — both in the world about us and the world within.
[...]
The point is that, between reading a book cover to cover and not picking it up at all, there are umpteen normal and valid critical responses to books, and we are daft to feel bad about ourselves for not having “read” Joyce or Proust when we probably know a significant amount about both writers. Bayard’s message is that a person who has literally “read” the book has, in any case, arguably no advantage in understanding it over someone who hasn’t.

Emphasis added.

Not having "read" Bayard, I'm tempted to say that this, the last (emphasis added) sentence especially, is the purest of bollocks. Nor can I honestly believe that low self-esteem on account of 'not having "read" Proust or Joyce' is a significant problem in today's society. But in my benighted adhesion to the bad old ways I think I'd better have a cursory flick through the book itself before working up a full head of sneer.

3 comments:

genevieve said...

He does sound like a fab advocate for the continuation of book reviews in papers though.
Hilary Mantel's not so impressed either:
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0,,2235427,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=10

eyrie said...

I really want to read it too. I quite liked this review in the SMH, not least for the anecdote about the "superbly unreconstructed old Leavisite" who won't read Ulysses because that would be to "condone" it. Perhaps it’s very wrong of me, but I find that quite delightful and almost therapeutic, since I’m one of those wracked by guilt about the things I haven’t read from time to time (it’s a particular audience with the luxury to indulge such guilt, perhaps). Obviously (I presume) the author has his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek, but we all navigate literature (and culture generally) by assembling the things we have read and the things of which we are tangentially aware into our own broader pattern or view. If the contention is that one’s broader pattern or view and how one positions a particular text, rather than the interpretation of that individual text, still has merit when one hasn’t read it and is judging simply from the perspective of its cultural resonance, then I think it’s a valid point. I hope the book is a good antidote to the sort of anxiety of which all those “1001” books are a symptom; that people shouldn’t be intimidated into devaluing their own reading histories.
Apologies for length- I find this subject interesting.

lucy tartan said...

Thanks both of you for those links. I will read it. The references all the reviewers make to interior libraries suggest it might have things i can employ in my thesis chapter about Fahrenheit 451.

Eyrie, thanks for this comment (not too long, either - & I find the subject interesting too.) The old Leavisite anecdote is nice, I guess - recalcitrance has a glamour that the limp abjection usually associated with not having read some big canonical thing can never attract - but it's not a flattering story. Don't you find the current vogue for Leavis-hating poses a bit tacky and sad?

I agree with you about this:

"If the contention is that one’s broader pattern or view and how one positions a particular text, rather than the interpretation of that individual text, still has merit when one hasn’t read it and is judging simply from the perspective of its cultural resonance, then I think it’s a valid point."

but if that's as far as the serious argument of the book goes, I would have to say 'so what'? It's not exactly a new idea.

The 1001 books you must read thing, I'm interested you think those sorts of things correspond to genuine anxieties. About cultural capital, I guess? I'd have thought they had more to do with the desire to stave off the boredom, or perhaps people use then as navigational aids in understaffed and overstocked bookshops.

I find it pretty hard to imagine that the common reader nurses shame and angst about gaps in his or her reading, to be honest.

Then again, I'm conscious that we're at the tail end of a long era of national socialised scorn for anything faintly cerebral (or let's hope we're at the end of it) and maybe philistinism is not 'normally' valued as as if it's some sort of natural virtue.

Quite a lot really depends on exactly what Bayard is arguing.

This morning I thought of Jenny Diski's post last year about the recent appearance of digests of long classics - she says, very properly, that if you can manage the time to read two 400 page abridgements you would do a lot better to read one 800 page novel instead. Bayard's book also reminds me of Franco Moretti's distant reading, aka counting novels in preference to reading them. Fine! But not literary criticism.