One could abandon writingAnd so, from a book about not writing to a book about not reading, Pierre Bayard’s Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? You’ve probably heard of it: the review of the book in the TLS last month prompted a flurry of linking on all the usual blogs (Boing Boing, 3 Quarks Daily, Arts & Letters Daily, etc.). It immediately struck me how delightfully witty it would be to write a blog entry on the book without having read it; but then I came to my senses and realized that not only would such an undertaking be completely unoriginal, it would also risk being, in the hands of a mediocre writer, not at all witty – as this silly article, also published in the Times back in February, abundantly proves (it is one thing not to have read Proust, but to think that a madeleine is some kind of biscuit is unforgivable).
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
So I read it.
It is true that we lie to others, and also to ourselves about the books we read, and that this may give rise to a whole complex of anxieties. So much of cultural discourse is mired in hypocrisy, guilt and bad faith. Bayard wants us to liberate ourselves from the system of obligations and prohibitions that constrains the ways we allow ourselves to talk about books. What he is arguing for is nothing less than the ‘desacralization’ of the realm of literary discourse.
As a psychoanalyst Bayard is good on the scrappiness and unevenness of our experience with books, and on the mechanisms of displacement and condensation, selection and repression that intrude to disrupt our understanding of it. He coins the apposite term ‘screen book’ (after Freud’s ‘screen memory’) for the images we tend to substitute for the ‘real book’, as the basis for our interactions with others, and with ourselves.
To understand how to talk about books, it is necessary first to understand what reading is – and this is no simple matter. There is no such thing as mere ‘reading’: there is reading into, out of, up on, through, against, off, at odd and even. Indeed, Bayard’s typology of non-reading (livres inconnus, livres parcourus, livres évoqués, livres oubliés) might have been enriched had the French language access to the panoply of phrasal verbs available in English.
Bayard provides some notes towards a general theory of reading, but studiously avoids engaging with the many theorists that have thought long and hard about it already, the likes of Barthes, Iser, Gadamer. Indeed the only literary theorists that get a look-in here are, so to speak, zero-degree theorists of reading and writing: Paul Valéry, who wanted the theory without bothering with the books themselves, and Oscar Wilde, who believed that reading tended towards perfection in the degree it could detach itself from its object. Despite his claim that he is interested in the real practices of reading and talking about books, Bayard in these chapters seems to be less concerned with the phenomenology of reading than with its abstractions.
Defining just what it is we do when we read a book is no easy matter: we are engaged in a silent dialogue, in the moment but extending over time, with something that is simultaneously a material and an immaterial object. Texts are mobile, fluid things, and our relation to them changes over time and according to the contexts in which we read, think and talk about them. Perhaps, then, Valéry was onto something when he decided that what was important in a book was not its individuality or particularity, but it ‘idea’, its ‘poetics’: only by evacuating the phenomenon can there be any kind purified aesthetic of reading.
To go beyond mere reading, and to get down to the serious business of reading, demands an effort of willed distraction. There is a danger of being too good a reader, of reading too carefully and attentively: we must will ourselves to turn away from books, doubly, beyond them to their wider context and inwardly, towards ourselves.
Montaigne knew all about this. Bayard quotes this passage from ‘De la praesumption’:
I turne and tosse over bookes, but do not studie them; what of them remaines in me is a thing which I no longer acknowledge to be any bodies else. Onely by that hath my judgement profited: and the discourses and imaginations wherewith it is instructed and trained up.Or how about this, a passage I am fond of quoting, from the essay ‘De l’institution des enfants’:
(Essais II.17 ---Florio’s translation)
Truth and reason are common to all, and are no more proper unto him that spake them heretofore, than unto him that shall speake them hereafter. And it is no more according to Platoes opinion than to mine, since both he and I understand and see alike. The Bees do here and there sticke this and cull that flower, but afterward they produce the hony, which is peculiarly their owne, then is it no more Thyme or Majoram. So of peeces borrowed of others, he may lawfully alter, transforme, and confound them, to shape out of them a perfect peece of worke, altogether his owne; alwaies provided his judgement, his travell, studie, and institution tend to nothing, but to frame the same perfect.And how did Montaigne manage to invent such an admirable system of reading? By cultivating a really terrible memory:
The authours, the place, the words; and other circumstances, I sodainly forget: and am so excellent in forgetting, that as much as any thing else I forget mine owne writings and compositions.Excellence in forgetting is a means to improve the faculty of judgement. We are constantly appropriating and transforming the words of others, whether by blanking out the author or title of the book in which we read them, or, better, by forgetting that we did in fact read them, that the memories we hold are not simply our own. The limit case of this is forgetting one’s own writings, and so being doomed to repeat them; but repetition with variation is a generative mechanism, perhaps the foundation of all human creativity.
Forgetting also allows us to re-invent the books with which we claim acquaintance or even intimacy. In this is it is very like (not) reading, since it can engage us creatively. Lying about books one hasn’t read is a creative enterprise, of the same order as the lying that is at the basis of all writing – I speak not just of composing fictions, but of withholding information, manufacturing ambiguity, twisting language to our own ends. To invent, to weave texts into the fabric of one’s own experience and thereby to give substance to one’s own ideas, is to cultivate an independence of mind and to transcend the parasitism of merely ‘reading’.
The ability to forget is a precondition of comprehension. Bayard coins the useful term ‘délecture’: a word that might mean ‘un-reading’, but also has pleasing associations (‘dé-lire’, ‘dé-lectation’) with delirium and delight – as if the pleasure of the text resided in its expropriation, its unreading, its decontextualization.
At the other end of the non-reading spectrum is absolute contextualization, full participation in the cultural discourse. This we aspire to mainly via the expedient of the appeal to authority – it is often sufficient, as Valéry did for his eulogy to Proust, to rely on other people’s opinions about a book for us to judge it. In fact, the ability to derive one’s own position from the constellations of others’ stated opinions is an essential skill we must cultivate.
The subject of one of Bayard’s chapters, the librarian in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (a book I’ve heard good things about, but never opened), takes this to its extreme conclusion. Like Bartleby, who ‘would prefer not to’, the librarian never reads any books; but he has a reason for this: he fears it might disrupt his sense of how they all fit together, his cultural overview. What matters for him is the relations between elements in a structure, not the elements themselves.
The downside of this is the traffic in empty signifiers that constitutes much of high- and middle-brow cultural – not to mention academic – discourse. Bayard mounts a defence of this kind of thing, taking as his source texts Graham Greene’s The Third Man (the scene where Rollo Martins is compelled to speak authoritatively on the modern novel, despite knowing nothing about it) and David Lodge’s Changing Places (in which a Professor of English shoots himself in the foot by admitting, in a dinner-party game of one-downmanship, that he has not read Hamlet). Often in such situations, the content of our utterances matters less than their orientation, and the respective positions of the interlocutors in the cultural hierarchy. In this part of the book the discussion suffers, ironically enough, from a lack of orientation: for example Pierre Bourdieu, who has written extensively on the social dimension of our cultural interactions, does not get a mention; and I couldn’t help but think that Bayard’s concept of an ‘inner book’ – the sum of collective or individual representations that interposes itself between reader and book – is merely a warmed-over version of the familiar ‘horizon of expectations’. Perhaps the author made a conscious decision to exclude hermeneutics, reception theory, etc. from this study. Or maybe he simply hasn’t read Jauss.
Bayard makes the strong point that the ‘virtual library’ in which these discussions take place is primarily a ludic space, and that often to speak sincerely or with too much conviction is tantamount to a breach of the rules. What matters more, he concludes, than the truths we present to others is the truth we know to be our own. Well and good, but is it really possible to extricate the one from the other?