TITLE: Not Reading, and Writing AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 05, 2008 3:49 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In my last entry, I talked about Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which I have, indeed, read. Bayard started with the notion that no one should feel shame about not having read a book, even when we are called upon to talk abut it. He eventually reached a much more important idea, that by freeing ourselves from this and other fears we have about books and learning we open ourselves to create art of our own. This entry looks at the bigger idea. The issues that Bayard discusses throughout the book touch me in several personal and professional ways. I am a university professor, and as a teacher I am occasionally asked by students to talk about books and papers. I've read many of these, but not all; when I have read a work, though, I may well have forgotten a lot of it. In either case, I can find myself expected to talk intelligently about a work I don't know well. Not surprisingly, students show considerable deference to their teachers, in part because they expect a level of authority. That's pressure. Personally, I sometimes hang with an interesting, literate, well-read crowd. They've all read a lot of cool stuff; why haven't I? They don't ask me that, of course, but I ask myself. Bayard assures us "don't worry!", explains why not, and tells us how to handle several common situations in which we will find ourselves. That's the idea -- partly humorous, partly serious -- behind the book. But there is more to the book, both humor and truth, that connected with me. Consider:
Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.
Until I started writing this blog, I did not have a good sense of how bad my memory is for what I have read. I've never had a high level of reading comprehension. Those standardized tests we all took in grade school showed me to be a slow reader with only moderate comprehension, especially when compared to performance in school. One of the best outcomes for me of writing this blog has been to preserve some of what I read, especially the part that seems noteworthy at the time, before I start to forget it. The chapter that contains the sentence quoted above begins with this subtitle:
(in which, along with Montaigne, we raise
the question of whether a book you have
read and completely forgotten, and which
you have even forgotten you have read,
is still a book you have read)
Montaigne writes with fear about his forgetfulness, the loss any memory of having read a book. Does that still count? In one sense, yes. I've held Ringworld in my hands and taken in the words on each page. But in most ways I am today indistinguishable from a person who has never read the book, because I don't remember much more than the picture on the cover. Bayard explores this and other ways in which the idea of "to read" is ambiguous and bases his advice on the results. How about any of the many, many technical computer science books I've read? The same fate. There is one solace to be had when we consider books that teach us how to do something. The knowledge we gain from reading technical material can become part of our active skill base, so that even after we have forgotten "knowledge that" the content of a compiler text is true, we can still have "knowledge how" to do something. But reading is not the end of forgetting. Montaigne was an essayist. What about writing? Montaigne expects his loss to extend to his own work:
It is no great wonder if my book follows the fate of other books, and if my memory lets go of what I write as of what I read, and of what I give as of what I receive.
Forgetting what I have written is a sensation I share with Montaigne. Occasionally, I go back and re-read an old entry in this blog, or a month of entries, and am amazed. Some times, I am amazed that I wrote such drivel. Other times, I am amazed that I had such a good idea and managed to express it well. And, yes, I am often amazed to be reminded I have read something I've forgotten all about. In the best of these cases, the entry includes a quotation or, even better, a link to the work. This allows me to read it again, if I desire. I usually do. That is good news. We can hold at bay the forgetting of what we read by re-reading. But there is another risk in forgetting: writing the same thing again. Bayard reports Montaigne's fear:
Incapable of remembering what he has written, Montaigne finds himself confronted with the fear of all those losing their memory: repeating yourself without realizing it....
Loss of memory creates an ambiguity in the writer's mind. It's common for me when writing a blog entry to have a sense of deja vu that I've written the same thing before. Sometimes my mind is playing tricks on me, due to the rich set of links in my brain, but sometimes I am and have forgotten. The fear in forgetting what we have written is heightened by the fear that what we write is unremarkable. We may remember the idea that stands out, but how are we to remember the nondescript? I often feel as Montaigne did:
Now I am bringing in here nothing newly learned. These are common ideas; having perhaps thought of them a hundred times, I am afraid I have already set them down.
I feel this almost no matter what I write. Surely my thoughts are common; what value is there in writing them down for others to read? That's why it was good for me to realize at the very beginning that I had to think that I was writing for myself. Only then would I find the courage to write at all and maybe benefit someone else. When confronted by a sense that I am writing the same ideas again, I just have to be careful. And when I do repeat myself, I must hope that I do it better the second time, or at least differently enough, to add something that makes the new piece worth a reader's time. The danger in forgetting what I have written is not only in writing again. What about when a reader asks me about something I have written? Montaigne faced this fear, too, as Bayard writes:
But fear of repeating himself is not the only embarrassing consequence of forgetting his own books. Another is that Montaigne does not even recognize his own texts when they are quoted in his presence, leaving him to speak about texts he hasn't read even though he has written them.
That is at least two layers of not reading more than most of us expect to encounter in any situation! But the circumstance is quite real. When someone sends me e-mail asking about something I've forgotten I wrote, I have the luxury of time to re-read (there it is again!) before I respond. My correspondent is likely none the wiser. But what if they ask me in person? I am right where Bayard says I will be, left to respond in many of the ways he describes. By writing about what I read and think about, there is a great risk that people will expect me to be changed by the experience! I did not do myself any favors when I chose a name for my blog, because I create an expectation about both knowing and doing. I certainly hope that I am changed by my experience reading and writing, but I know that often I have not changed, at least sufficiently. I still give lame assignments. I'm not that much better as a teacher at helping students learn more effectively. My shortcoming is all the more obvious when students and former students read my blog and are able to compare their experiences in my classes with my aspirations. This is actually more a source of guilt for me than being thought not to have read a book. I know I am not as good as all the things I've read might lead one to believe, or even as good as what I've written (which sets a much lower bar!). If I am not growing, what is the point? Of course, I probably am changing, in small increments beneath the scale of my perception. At least I hope so. Bayard doesn't say this in so many words, but I think it is implicit in how he approaches reading and not reading. For him, there is no distinction between the two:
We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books rememeberd by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and recast by our private fantasies.
This is a central theme for Bayard, and for me as well. He talks at length about the different ways our inner conception of books and libraries affects the act of reading any book. I often wonder how much of what I report about a book or paper I read is a product of me imposing my own view on what the writer has said -- not what is there, not what the author has intended, what distorts the writer's meaning? How much of what I am writing about Bayard's book reflects accurately the book he wrote? Bayard would be unconcerned. On his view, I could no more not impose my inner book on the outer one than to be Bayard himself. No one can avoid distortion (in an objectivist sense) or imposition of self (in a subjectivist sense). What distinguishes the master is how forcefully and creatively one does so. Private fantasy, indeed!
To conceive of reading as loss ... rather than as gain is a psychological resource essential to anyone seeking effective strategies for surviving awkward literary confrontations.
Can I admit that I have forgotten something I've read or written? Certainly; I do it frequently. The key is to talk about the work as who I am in the present. I don't even need to explicitly acknowledge the loss, because the loss is a given. But I must talk without embarrassment and without any pretension that I remember exactly what I said or thought then. The human mind works in a certain way, and I must accept that state of affairs and get down to the business of learning -- and creating -- today. -----