DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I rose, went forth, and read no more!

Written by: on October 11, 2018

How to talk about books you haven’t read – Pierre Bayard

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and read no more!”

I loved this book, mostly due to its honesty. Apart from novels, which I adore, I am a famous skim reader, contents expert and appendix reviewer. I know many things about many things that I know very little about, but when combined, I know quite a bit – I think. The opening quote by Oscar Wilde, “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so”, is a spectacular antithesis to the claims of the literati.[1]

Many years ago, I attempted to read Tolstoy’s, War and Peace, principally because it is an acclaimed masterpiece of Russian literature. It was incredibly boring. There were no heroes and far too many characters, most of whom I had forgotten within pages of having encountered them. Though I shamefully gave up, I had read enough to get the gist, but I have always been plagued with guilt. I experienced the same effect with Dostoyevsky – he was undoubtedly a fabulous thinker, but he was hardly a page-turner in print. Thus, my new friend, Pierre, has assuaged my conscience.

 

Reading French translated to English often feels a little stilted, but from my jottings along the way, three things caught my attention that provided a framework I found helpful:

  1. Books you must know about and their kind – the librarian.[2] This was beneficial. I’d never really thought about librarians as maps. Though Bayard doesn’t make that direct comparison, librarians are like the google maps of literature. The librarian knows where to point people by understanding what books are associated with which sphere of knowledge, and also the leanings of the author within that genre. In the same way, academics understand how literature holds together within their field of expertise, even though they may not have a detailed understanding of every book. As a result, that knowledge enables us to speak across different research areas with some confidence.
  2. Books you need to know about to make sure you’re not wrong or aren’t repeating already established thinking or knowledge. I do this naturally, but now I can think about it more precisely. Often when writing, I start with my own thoughts as a way of gauging what I may already know. However, in doing so, I am aware that none of my thoughts are completely original (if at all). As Bayard puts it,

    “In truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries — built within us over the years and housing all our secret books — come into contact with the inner libraries of others, potentially provoking all manner of friction and conflict.”
    For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.
    [3]

    Having a broad knowledge of previous influences without necessarily knowing the specific details of their writing gives me a frame of reference to check-out and critique my own thinking based on other material I know is out there.

  3. Books we have heard of but have no access to – in this case, we talk about what others say about those books.[4] This isn’t such a problem these days as the internet has made previously inaccessible material accessible, but not always. In my early years of study, journal articles were accessed through a complex card system at the library, or through a semi-reliable inter-loan system, so it was not unusual to have no access at all. However, we did have material available that spoke to the books we needed to know about. So, if a couple of reviewers wrote in a similar fashion about the principal author, then we would speak and write as if we were commenting on the primary author too.

Interestingly, I read an online article a couple of years back titled, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound”[5] The article is based on research studying digital technology’s effect on attention span and comprehension. Clinical observations seem to show that those handling paper books comprehend more than those using digital instruments.  But more worrying was the modern generations inability to remain focussed while reading. However, I have also read that an equal claim was made in the 18th century about reading had hindered the ability to listen, which was the primary way of learning prior to the development of the printing press in the 16th century.[6] Whatever the case, the ability to engage with ever increasing amounts of information, opinion and research is not going to get easier, and Bayer’s cheeky little book is yet another useful step in handling ever-increasing volumes of written material.

 

[1] Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (London: Grants Books : Kobo Edition, 2008). Epigraph

[2] Ibid. Chapter 1 p3

[3] Ibid. Chapter 5 p7

[4] Ibid. Chapter 3

[5] Maryanne Wolf, “Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound,” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf.

[6] James A Dewar, “The Information Age and the Printing PressLooking Backward to See Ahead,” https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P8014/index2.html (accessed September, 2016).

 

Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. London: Grants Books : Kobo Edition, 2008.

Dewar, James A. “The Information Age and the Printing Press

Looking Backward to See Ahead.” (1998): https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P8014/index2.html (accessed September, 2016).

Wolf, Maryanne. “Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound.” (2018): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

8 responses to “I rose, went forth, and read no more!”

  1. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    It’s interesting to me that you refer to books we have no access to. I agree that the internet has mad much more available, but wonder to what extent unpublished texts become such in accessible texts. For example personal diaries used to write autobiographies or biographies. I also wonder about the elusive ‘Q’ text which is said to have influenced both the gospel of Matthew and of Luke. These are books that may be talked about without anyone every having full knowledge of them.
    Finally, I’m most curious about this card system you mentioned; is this now some texts we no longer have access to?

  2. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    I loved your three points. You did a great job active reading this book, according to Adler. The three points were a good summation of the book as a whole.

    I am curious what your skimming and active reading techniques are. As a proclaimed famous skim reader, how to do you synthesize the information you’re skimming for retention, since that’s my number one issue?

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks, Digby, great post and summary. It seems that as we continue to progress as a society the old way is always considered the better way until those from the past are gone. At the same time, listening is a lost art, and we would do well to recapture it in modern times. I think this was a key to Bayard’s thinking as he advocated for intrapersonal connections around books being more important than the content of the book. I’m beginning to wonder if after we skim, speed read, or don’t read at all if slowing down to the speed of life is what is really needed?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”
      Isaiah 50:4

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby – I’ve got a great idea. You ‘read’ our books assigned and write your post. Then send it to me a couple days before you post it. Then I will write off of what you sent. This is a longer way of complimented your ‘gutting’ of this book – a skill I’m determined to grow in.
    I’m with Karen – what are your techniques for skimming and retention? I noticed you said you took some notes in the margin – ‘jottings’. This is one of your habits?
    Also, I laughed about War and Peace as I bought it earlier this year determined to read it (and then casually look for ways to let others know I have?). I can not get myself to attempt it. Perhaps I won’t.

  5. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Thanks for sharing, Digby. I appreciated your “framework” ideas in your post. Very Information. Life you, I also have been very good at skimming books and gleaming the best from them. But I enjoyed your statement that “you know many things that you know a little about, but when combined, it’s a lot!’ Me too!

  6. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Digby, I appreciate your insights each week as we post and this one is no exception. I have found it very important to look at history to get hints about the future as there definitely is a cyclical nature to much of humanity while also being progressive. Your reference to the transition from oral tradition to the printing press is case in point. We humans seem to have a propensity toward doomsday thinking instead of the incredible progressive possibilities God placed within us. I find comfort in history and anticipation about future possibilities by this thinking.

  7. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    You have to be the best sourced blogger I know! Your excellent writing and technical prowess are truly inspiring. It is so interesting that skim reading is not only an essential skill for research but a apparently a preferred skill for developing ones inner library. To use your vernacular, I also found Bayard cheeky but thanks to you see he and his imperative in a new light. Thanks again for your insights, H P.S. I hope you had a great visit with your kids post Hong Kong (in Shanghai I believe?)

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