As I sit with a hot cup of tea, curled up on the couch with my computer (damn e-books) I am in the place and space I love most in the world. To sit unimpeded by distractions of noise, children, work etc. and read……there is nothing better or more rare in my life. And Pierre Bayard had the audacity to try and steal that from me. Well screw him! I am going to try to read his entire book and talk about it before I forget what I read. I must, however, admit that even the writer of Ecclesiastes recognized the impossibility of reading all that was written, little did they know. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecc 12:12) (Anyone else weary right now?) Today the proliferation of books, hard copy and electronic versions, is beyond measure. It seems as though Bayard might have had this Hebrew Bible reference in mind as he was writing his own book.
For those of you who read Jay’s post or several of his responses to the posts of others last week, you would likely note his embarrassment at the limited number of ‘classics’ listed in Adler/Van Doren he had completed. This week, however, Jay is off the hook. Bayard astutely points out that if he, or any other knowledgable person, is able to place the unread book in its appropriate ‘location’ amongst other important texts he has every right and even a responsibility to discuss the text, though it remains unread on his shelf. In fact later Bayard goes on to point out that as a result of the interplay of books amongst themselves it is in fact “the entire library that is called into play through each book….”.1 Therefore Jay, having read some of the books in the pantheon, and countless others that are in the library and thus have a connection with those that remain for him unread, brings as much to any discussion as someone who may have read the list in its entirety.
Yet, I myself must now confess to feeling both compelled to read every word of Bayard’s book and unable to do so in the requisite time. Some of that compulsion is testament to my own unwillingness to relinquish my reverence for books and authors. (Sorry Jason) It was also a result of Bayard’s book being such an entertaining and interesting read. No matter, now that I have read it I have forgotten most of it already and almost forgotten that I even read it. Yet, I am hopeful that I will be able to discuss it astutely enough during our interactions to suitably impress you all with my knowledge and acumen. If nothing else I hope that something of this reading has affected my own inner book and that possibly this growth will help me connect better with others with whom I share this experience.
Yet for all its encouragement and seeming purpose to free us from self imposed reticence to discuss texts which we have possibly only encountered cursorily, Bayard utilizes intricate textual examples which communicate that he is very widely read and even seems to thoroughly recall most of what he has read. Thus, though his premise is strong and he eruditely communicates his thoughts, for me his method undermines it all, serving only to compel me to take better notes. (Even if they are notes written inside the back cover reminding me that I actually did read this particular book at one time.)
I must admit to feeling some discouragement as a result of this book, though I also recognize the truth that it has revealed. My retention of books that supposedly have been influential in my life is tentative at best. Sadly, I must admit that Bayard is correct when he writes; “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.”2 Though there is no clear means of measuring such I remain hopeful that these influential texts have somehow written themselves irreducibly on my own inner book.
Further, as we launch into a rather long and expensive journey toward writing a dissertation and obtaining the desired letters of note after our name, we will be reading countless texts, articles, blogs, studies and other writings. Yet; “we should perhaps use the term un-reading rather than reading to characterize the unceasing sweep of our forgetfulness.”3 This is a rather discouraging thought which raises the question whether or not we will retain anything of even our own dissertation six months after completion. (Someone please remind me why I am spending all this money on a D Min?)
The activity required to be a non-reader does serve to reduce some of the guilt associated with feeling like an ignorant baboon and the ancient words of the reference in Ecclesiastes helps some, but I can’t help feeling, as widely read as I might be, that somehow I don’t measure up. That is my problem and part of my own inner book that will interact with the words that I read and the ensuing discussions with all of you. In the meantime, I am going to enjoy this cup of tea and the remaining chapters of Bayard while I still have time and a little bit of quiet.
1Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Kindle Locations 1527-1528). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Kindle Locations 798-799). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
3Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Kindle Location 828). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.