TITLE: Not Reading Books AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 04, 2008 2:07 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I have another million to my credit, and it was a marvelous little surprise. Popular culture is full of all sorts of literary references with which you and I are supposed to be familiar. Every year brings another one or two. The Paradox of Choice. The Tipping Point. The Wisdom of Crowds. Well-read people are expected, well, to have read the books, too. How else can we expect to keep up with our friends when they discuss these books, or to use the central wisdoms they contain in knowing ways? I have a confession. I have read only two or three chapters of The Wisdom of Crowds. I have read only an excerpt from The Tipping Point that appeared in the New Yorker or some other literary magazine. And while I've seen a Google talk by Barry Schwartz on-line, I may not have read anything more than a short precis of the work. Of course, I have learned a lot about them from my friends, and by reading about them in various other contexts. But, strictly speaking, I have not read any of them. To be honest, I feel no shame about this state of affairs. There are so, so many books to read, and these just have not seemed important enough to displace others from my list. And in the case of The Wisdom of Crowds, I found that one or two chapters told me pretty much all I needed to understand the Big Idea it contained. Much as Seth Godin has said about many popular business books, many books in the popular canon can be boiled down to much shorter works in their essence, with the rest being there for elaboration or academic gravitas. cover of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read For airplane reading on my trip to the workshop at Google, I took Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Bayard's thesis is that neither I nor anyone else should feel shame about not having read any given book, even if we feel a strong compulsion to comment, speak, or write about it. In not reading and talking anyway, we are part of a grand intellectual tradition and are, in fact, acting out of necessity. There are simply too many books to read. This problem arises even in the most narrow technical situation. When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I surely cited works with which I was familiar but which I had not "read", or, having read them, had only skimmed them for specific details. I recall feeling a little bit uneasy; what if some party of the book or dissertation that I had not studied deeply said something surprising or wrong? But I knew a lot about these works in context: from other people's analyses, from other works by the same author, and even from having discussed the work with the author him- or herself. But in an important way, I was talking about a work I "had not read". How I could cite the work anyway and still feel I was being intellectually honest gets to one of the central themes of Bayard's book: the relationships between ideas are often more important than the ideas themselves. To understand a work in the context of the universal library means more than just to know the details of the work, and the details themselves are often so affected by conditions outside of the text that they are less reliable than the bigger picture anyway. First, let me assure you. Bayard wrote this book with a wink in his eye. At times, he speaks with a cavalier sarcasm. He also repeats himself in places; occasional paragraphs sound as if they have been lifted verbatim from previous chapters. Second, this book fits Seth Godin's analysis of popular business books pretty well. Two or three chapters were sufficient to express the basic idea of this book. But such a slim product would have missed something important. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read started as a joke, perhaps over small talk at a cocktail party, but as Bayard expanded on the idea he ended up with an irreverent take on reading, thinking, and understanding that carries a lot more truth than I might first have imagined. Readers of this blog who are software patterns aficionados might think of Big Ball of Mud in order to understand just what I mean: antipattern as pattern, when looked at from a different angle. This book covers a variety of books that deal in some way with not reading books but talking about them. Along the way, Bayard explores an even wider variety of ideas. Many of these sound silly, even wrong, at first, and he uses this to weave a lit-crit tale that is perfect parody. But as I read, I kept saying, "Yeah, but..." in a way, this really is true. For example, Bayard posits that reading too much can cause someone to lose perspective in the world of ideas and to lose one's originality. In a certain way, the reader subordinates himself to the writer, and so reading too much means always subordinating to another rather than creating ideas oneself. We could read this as encouragement not to read (much), which would miss his joke. But there is another level at which he is dead-on right. I knew quite a few graduate students who learned this firsthand when they got into a master's program and found that they preferred to immerse themselves in the research of others than to do creative research of their own. And there many blogs which do a fine job reporting on other people's work but which never seem to offer much new. (I struggle with that danger each time I write in this blog.) Not reading does not mean that we cannot have an opinion. My friends and I are examples of this. Students are notorious for this, and Bayard, a lit professor, discusses the case of students in class at some length. But I was most taken by his discussion of Laura Bohannan's experience telling the story of Hamlet to the Tiv people of West Africa. As she told the story, the Tiv elders interpreted the story for her, correcting her -- and Western culture, and Shakespeare -- along the way. One of the interpretations was a heterodoxy that has a small but significant following among Shakespeare scholars. The chief even ventured to predict how the story ended, and did a pretty good job. Bayard used this as evidence that not reading a book may actually leave our eyes open to new possibilities. Bohannan's story is available on-line, and you really should read it -- it is delightful. Bayard talks about so many different angles on our relationship with books and stories about them, including One chapter focuses on our encounters with writers, and the ticklish situations they create for the non-reader and for the writer. In another, Bayard deals with the relationship among professors, students, and books. It made me think about how students interpret the things I say in class, whether about our readings or the technical material we are learning. Both of these chapters figure in a second entry I'm writing about this book, as well as chapters on the works of Montaigne and Wilde. One chapter uses as his evidence the campus novels of David Lodge, of whom I am a big fan. I've never blogged about them, but I did use the cover of one of his books to illustrate a blog entry. Yet another draws on Bill Murray's classic Groundhog Day, an odd twist in which actually reading books enters into Bayard's story and supports his thesis. I have recommended this film before and gladly do so again. As in so many situations, our fear of appearing weak or unknowledgable is what prevents us from talking freely about a book we haven't read, or even to admit that we have not read it. But this same fear is also responsible for discouraging us from talking about books we have read and about ideas we have considered. This is ultimately the culprit that Bayard hopes to undermine:
But our anxiety in the face of the Other's knowledge is an obstacle to all genuine creativity about books. The idea that the Other has read everything, and thus is better informed than us, reduces creativity to a mere stopgap that non-readers might resort to in a pinch. In truth, readers and non-readers alike are caught up in an endless process of inventing books, whether we like it or not, and the real question is not how to escape that process, but how to increase its dynamism and its range.
Bayard's book is worth reading just for his excerpts of other books and for his pointer to the story about the Tiv. I should probably feel guilt at not having read this book yet when so many others have, but I'm just happy to have read it now. While reading on the plane coming home, I glanced across the aisle and noticed another passenger reading Larry Niven's Ringworld. I smiled and thought "FB++", in Bayard's rating system. I could talk about it nonetheless. -----