Books are us
The first course of my university career was held on the sixteenth floor of the austere Arts Tower at Carleton University in Ottawa in fall 1983. Twentieth Century French Literature, or more accurately, “La littérature française du xxe siècle”, was taught entirely in French, and even more intimidating to me at the tender age of 19 than the book list and attending lectures on the selected works of Sartre, Camus, Zola, and Beckett, was the fact I’d have to write essays en français. So, in reading Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I feel I got an early start. I probably understood 10% of those books, but I was able to write about them adequately enough to pull off a B in the course – a grade that shocked me on receipt for its liberal generosity.
I mention this because in my read of Bayard this week, I had multiple flashbacks of that course. It read like a French book, embedded in that culture. The satire was cutting and obscene. The word games were delightful. The hyperboles used by the author were frequently hilarious. Reading this book also made me glad we know Jenn, our resident French missionary who can say the alphabet backwards, and this gave me a twinge in my spirit that I, at one time, also aspired to the former, though not the latter.
Ideas from Bayard will prove to be helpful to those of us in this doctoral program, if we would only crucify our egos and relish in our non-reading. Here are a few suggestions inspired by the author:
- Notes are blazes on the trail combatting amnesia: The author reminds us that we read and, after ten minutes, we forget. Some method of retaining and sorting information is essential if we intend to ransack the stacks of the library to fill out our bibliographies. Bayard counsels, “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 a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion.”
- Set adrift any shame: We all have gaps in our reading, and no one is able to retain or synthesize the library. We are students, and the position of a student is that of a learner. It is a place of humility, and there’s no room for pride. The author states, “To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it.”
- Culture shapes reading: Just like the Tiv of Africa who brought new meaning to Hamlet because of their values regarding death, leadership, and status in society, so our interpretations flow out of our cultural biases. Like Laura Bohannan discovered, the meaning of an author is not universally understood immediately, for it comes from a culture and is spoken into a culture. In reading we must discern the cultural orientation of the book to understand meaning. Further, it could be more specific than the broader cultural bias. Often the author’s personal experience shapes the writing, and understanding her place of reference will be an aid in comprehension.
- Read your inner book: In the exploration of meaning required for this program, my understanding of Bayard would suggest that we allow our personal history and perspectives to influence how we understand the works we read. Knowing this, we approach learning cognizant of the need to listen to the subtext within our own souls. He states, “The book invented in any given context will be credible if it emerges from the truth of the subject and is inscribed within the elaboration of his inner universe….In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves.”
- Unfailing self-assurance when you don’t know what you’re talking about: Like Rollo Martins, who, like a bull in a china shop, rattles the crockery of the literary salons of Paris with his enthusiastic endorsements of Zane Grey, we too must know who has called us, why we are called, and to what we are called. If you believe God has led you to this place of study, and humbly walk forward with him, you can be bold and courageous to advance your way forward.
A final word. Books are us. What we read is who we are. “…[B]ooks serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality.” I recently built library shelves in our home and stained them honey brown. They embrace the fireplace, the hearth of our home. It brings me joy to look over those books – most of which I haven’t read – and be reminded how they shaped me and the journey of learning I’ve been on ever since the Arts Tower in Ottawa.
 Displaying a stereotypical French condescension towards the English, we witness Bayard’s sucker punch at the Anglo-Saxon race, who believe, unlike the Tiv tribe, in zombies. Pierre Bayard, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 81.
 Imagining discussing Zane Grey in a French literary salon. Bayard, 67.
 For example, the librarian who didn’t read books. Bayard, 8.
 Bayard, 52.
 Bayard, 53.
 Bayard, 128.
 Bayard, 129-130.
 Bayard, 76-78.
 Bayard, 179.
 Bayard, 69.
 Bayard, p128.
6 responses to “Books are us”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Mark, I love the picture of your hearth being embraced by your books–books that you love even though you haven’t read many of them. I get that! And your application of the self-assurance piece was an encouragement that I needed today.
I, too, was struck by the culture parts, no only as an expat who is always wondering if I’m really being understood, but also as a 21st century reader of a book that was written in another place and time–most specifically the Bible. The Hamlet anecdote got me wondering about the ‘”ghosts” in the Gospels–that is to say, ideas that were clear to their original audience, but perhaps are lost or misunderstood by us. Bohannen wanted the Tiv of Africa to understand the story, but as it was written, it did not fit into their cultural lexicon–they didn’t even have a word for “ghost.” Which is kind of a key element of Hamlet. SO as I think of all the linguistic and cultural barriers to understanding Scripture, it’s amazing how well it seems to resonate throughout the generations. This convinces me that it is the inspired Word of God. And yet, I also feel like I have a responsibility to understand it, to seat it in its original context and even evaluate varying translations. Bayard got me thinking about this!
“Read your inner book”, a great quote, this stuck with me as well. You can see it in how different we all approach Bayard’s book. What speaks to me will not speak to another reader and that is ok. It is deep within our selves where we will find meaning in each book we read and this book helps us to understand and be ok with this.
This post read so well Mark. I want to see those honey brown shelves!
I especially liked your comment encouraging us to take notes. This is again part of the SQR3 method and its something I’ve long intended to do but don’t really ever do it. Remembering that we really hardly retain anything helps me emphasize the importance of this note-taking.
I think I might add one thing to your comment of books are us. It reminded me of the John Wooden quote which adds simply the people we meet to that equation. “Five years from now, you’re the same person except for the people you’ve met and the books you’ve read.”
Mark, I think your post helped me to gain some more insight on another reason I just struggled with this reading. The more Bayard discussed that almost philosophical approach to reading, and how the reader was the book mentality, I guess it seemed as though he was just pushing my boundaries too far. I have always loved a good story…not necessarily reading it, but a good story none the less. I found that my imagination could draw me into a book, movie, or great tale and keep my mind enthralled for hours or even days after; and though I found that there are certain stories that seem to captivate me more than others, it was not so much my imagination that made the story great, but rather the story teller itself that drew me in. We had an old phrase, “mumbo-jumbo” that referred to someone that was either making stuff up, or just talking without really making sense. As I read Bayard, there were times when I saw wisdom and understanding in his words, and other times that I just saw “mumbo-jumbo”.
I only partially agree with the “books are us” mentality. I guess the reality for me is that in scholarship, there are times when I read a book when it really had nothing to do with me; I only read it because I had to. In fact, I guess I just figured that if a book was truly “me”, then I probably would have read it already because it would have drawn me in to the point that I would not have had to fake reading it. The one book that I truly pray is really me is the Bible; and the fact is, I cannot seem to get enough of it.
Thanks Mark. I like many am guilty of reading and then not even knowing what I have read and what some times the main point are. I have felt like I float classes, books and papers on a sea of oblivion. As any good Christian, we somethings live in a world of guilt. Bayard has truly set us free to read the way we need to and not always the way we think we should. I do think that these last 2 books have helped me understand the shift that needed to take place in my studies, by research and thoughts.
If we don’t read in the original language we can often miss the subtleties of that language. I admit I found the Author humorous but thought I had missed something from time to time. I should have realized there were french jokes, slander, culture mixed into the language and stories he told. I appreciated that perspective, especially because I missed it totally.
Thank you for your suggestion number 2, “Set adrift any shame.” That one freed me up and was my favorite on your list. It goes back to the guilt thing I talked about today. I am a pleaser and want to make others happy, so I want them to LIKE me, just for reading their book (even though they have no idea who I am). We don’t have to feel guilty or experience any shame…
I am also reminded that shame does not come from God. It only comes from God’s enemy. Shame is not the same as “conviction” which comes from the Holy Spirit. Conviction has the goal of restoration, shame only divides.
Talk to you next week!