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Talking About Books I Never Read: Confessions of an Academic Underachiever

Written by: on November 20, 2019

Presently I work in the same town where I finished high school and recently crossed paths with one of my former English teachers. We exchanged pleasantries and when she asked what was new in my life, I told her about my venture into doctoral studies. She seemed pleased to hear that I was pursuing more advanced education and then I told her about one of our assigned reading texts, Peter Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” She paused for a moment, then smiled big and said, “Well, if my memory serves, I would think you to be an expert on that subject!”

We both laughed because she was not wrong. I think it started in the eighth grade when our class was assigned to read “Jane Eyre.” We would read a section of chapters and answer questions about characters, plot, and theme. I thoughts these were merely exercises for regurgitating information that could easily be accessed through “Cliff’s Notes” and other helps. It took me a long time to learn that our interaction with books was not just about knowing what was in them, but instead about how they were inviting us to interact with the world.

I do not think I am the only one who missed that connection. Statistics in US American society confirm that we are an increasingly non-reading population.[1] However, that does not mean we are a people without opinions. A first glance it might be somewhat subversive to encourage or imply that it is possible to have thoughtful conversations on books that one has not read. After all, people have all kinds of spirited, reactive conversations on topics about which they have done very little research or reflection. (At the same time, I think it is safe to say that one need not buy Donald Trump, Jr.’s new book to learn anything new about his political opinions.)

For Bayard, books are not the solution in and of themselves. Books are not as much about solving the problems or creating uniformity or even alignment in thought, but instead as a means to start conversations. The impact of the book is not as much about the writer’s wisdom as it is its ability to evoke wisdom, solutions, and innovation from those who engage with a book and one another. Books are a tool, a method of understanding, one piece of a giant puzzle of how we learn to think about and see the bigger picture.

In an online review, Toby Lichtig writes, “Bayard’s approach is Derridean[2]: a focus on the relation between objects and systems that support these. He perceives books themselves as a ‘system,’ important only in so far as they are received in society: the gossip they generate; the ideas they spawn; the conflicts they provoke.”[3] It would seem that how books connect ideas are more important than the ideas themselves.

Thoughtful reflection is not about how well we can recite and recall someone else’s words, but about how those words spur our own thoughts. Methodists sometimes talk about the building blocks of faithful understanding in terms of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”[4] We bring our personal reason (logic, intellect, and wisdom,) historic Church tradition, and experience of the Holy Spirit to the conversation, all in light of the Scriptures. These are intended to inform and deepen our faith. Still, we cannot accomplish this in a vacuum or an echo chamber. Our best understanding comes in our conversations with other voices- books, blogs, social media interaction, one-on-one conversations, TED Talks, etc., when we listen, but also learn to form and articulate our own arguments and contributions to the larger narrative.

The bigger challenge is how the definitions of understanding and truth are shifting. What we believe to be true is increasingly subjective. Political ideologues and partisan news sources often view a singular event through their biased views (beer-goggles) and present content aimed at keeping like-minded constituents and viewers aligned. In his book, “But What If We’re Wrong,” Chuck Klosterman writes,

We live in an age where virtually no content is lost and virtually all content is shared. The sheer amount of information about every current idea makes those concepts difficult to contradict, particularly in a framework where public consensus has become the ultimate arbiter of validity. In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.[5]

How do we faithfully engage with ideas and concepts, maintaining a posture of openness and curiosity, and then encourage others to do so when people seem to be so firmly entrenched in their ideologies? And if we are all talking about books we have not actually read, or worse, avoiding important conversations under the guise of “keeping the peace,” what happens when our limited worldviews all implode upon themselves?

While we may not have reached the end of human knowledge, we are certainly at a crossroads in history about how we will make meaning in this era. We have much to learn from each other and the signs of this age. I suspect the old masters, maybe even Charlotte Bronte, might have something to say to us as well, if we dared to dig in thoughtfully.

I cannot go back and redo those old high school writing assignments. But still I suspect it may be satisfying enough for my former teacher to see another student finally understand the real lesson.

[1] Perrin, Andrew, “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?” Pew Research Center, September 26, 2019 at https://pewrsr.ch/2mVs4tG

[2] Derridean refers to the works of Jacques Derrida, a 20th century philosopher known for developing a semiotic analysis known as deconstruction. (source: Wikipedia.)

[3] Lichtig, Toby, “Never read Ulysses? Me neither,” theguardian.com, January 6, 2008.

[4] John Wesley himself did not specifically order his theology this way. The “quadrilateral” was a concept developed by theologian Albert Outler.

[5] Klosterman, Chuck, “But What If We’re Wrong,” (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016,) 10.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

9 responses to “Talking About Books I Never Read: Confessions of an Academic Underachiever”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    John,
    I love how you pulled out the importance of thought connections between books, readers, and community conversation. With the shifting nature of understanding and truth, what is our responsibly as learners to bring forth truth, to the best of our ability? And how do we do that well? Do we dig in deep to thoughts from the masters, as you mentioned above? Do the tap, scroll, and skim through our phone media feeds? Where is real value added? Also, did you share this post with your former English teacher? I’m sure she’d love to read it:)

    • mm John McLarty says:

      No, I have not shared this with my teacher! Maybe another time! But to your questions- I think the answer (with books and with people) is presence. To bring ourselves fully to what we are doing so that we can utilize all of our senses to gain a deeper understanding. I think our snap, scroll, and swipe culture is depriving us of this practice and we lose it at our peril.

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    John, great interaction with your former teacher. Did you still call her, “Mrs. ____”? I resonate with the line, “The impact of the book is not as much about the writer’s wisdom as it is its ability to evoke wisdom, solutions, and innovation from those who engage with a book and one another.” Orscon Scott Card’s introduction to “Ender’s Game” addresses that there is more to a book than simply the author’s intention. There is also the story of the individual and then a third combined story of that particular individual reading that particular text at that particular moment. Very postmodern, yet honest for an author to endorse that way of reading.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      I do still call her “Mrs. __.” I was officiating a funeral that she attended, so she saw me before I saw her. I was surprised to see her and it just came out that way! Maybe it is postmodern to seek to understand the author just as much as we interpret the text, but I like that idea. I’m not a published author, but I doubt anyone writes in a vacuum, without leaving a bit of one’s self in what they write. To some degree, isn’t everything a bit autobiographical in the sense that there’s something about ourselves in the things we write that we’d like others to know?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    You ask some powerful questions. It is getting harder and harder to have conversation in community when many of the American businesses promote convenience, isolation and self gratification.
    You are fortunate to live in a community the allows you to connect with your past.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Living in a place where I once lived is a double-edged sword. There’s relationship and familiarity with culture, but there’s also some provincial “stuckness” that sometimes actually makes it harder to reinvent and redefine one’s self. To use a book metaphor, it’s the difference between reading a book once and believing one thing about it for now and all time versus reading a book a second or third time at different phases of life and taking something new away each time. Know what I mean?

  4. Nancy Blackman says:

    John,
    “We live in an age where virtually no content is lost and virtually all content is shared.” Brrrr…. that’s a scary thought, and yet so true.

    So, if all content is shared, then why do we have such a problem finding the truth? Too many interpretations?

    “How do we faithfully engage with ideas and concepts, maintaining a posture of openness and curiosity, and then encourage others to do so when people seem to be so firmly entrenched in their ideologies?” I feel like you and I are struggling with the same question. How do we show the world that it’s ok to be open while listening and reacting to new ideas? Although I’ve been part of a new idea for a very long time and still people are afraid to engage. Do you think it’s a both/and? In other words, is it the fact that both sides need to be willing to engage? If one side doesn’t want to, then how do you encourage them that it’s ok? Is it a particular language or guidelines or …?

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    My friend. That quote. “…certitude…is paralyzing.” Wow!

    I was in a conversation not long ago where a friend pointed to certainty as the manifestation of immaturity. “Maturity,” he reasoned, “is manifest in our ability to wonder.”

    I do wonder how Bayard’s perspective of reading/non-reading, if embraced, can grow humility in all of us rather than reinforce our (misguided) pursuit of certainty. What do you think?

  6. mm Steve Wingate says:

    John, sorry to be late in the game. “but instead as a means to start conversations.” I don’t know if you remember meeting a D.Min. graduate at Christ Church who claimed to had never read a book while at Portland Seminary, at all! At first I thought that was amazing. Then, you know, it is a bit shady, in my opinion. No books read; at all?

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