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How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre...

Apr 18, 2012
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How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard

Surprise! This book won’t actually teach you how to talk about books you haven’t read, but rather, it’ll teach you a certain way of thinking about books. I first saw it mentioned by @mattthomas— he tweeted a while back that this was the book that helped him most with his PhD work, so I bought it for my wife the PhD candidate, and then finally read it myself.

Instead of straight-reviewing the book (thank God I’m not a real book reviewer!) here are some thoughts about reading that I’ve been developing and collecting (most of them are not my own, of course) with some passages from the book as “backup”:

* * *

Reading is an act of selection, or subtraction.


  Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.


And part of what makes us interesting isn’t just what we’ve read, but what we haven’t read.

* * *

Skimming is a kind of reading.

Here’s Francis Bacon (via):


  Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.


Read the conclusion sentence first, skip the boring parts, take things out of order—it really doesn’t matter.

* * *

Nobody reads the same book.


  When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… 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…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.
  …
  What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.


You become particularly aware of this as a writer:


  Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it. There is nothing astonishing in this disjuncture; since their inner books differ by definition, the one the reader has superimposed on the book is unlikely to seem familiar to the writer.


* * *

Every book is self-help.

“Reading is really the search for the self through others.” - Laurence Musgrove


  The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in—a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it if only he has the wisdom not to end the journey there.


This passage is impeded by the fucked-up way we teach students to think about books:


  Paralyzed by the respect due to texts and the prohibition against modifying them, forced to learn them by heart or to memorize what they “contain,” too many students lose their capacity for escape and forbid themselves to call on their imagination in circumstances where that faculty would be extraordinarily useful.


Which is why blackout poetry and marginalia are activities that can help us break out of the mindset that books are sacred, permanent artifacts, and push us towards the idea that books are simply fodder for our own creativity.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard

Surprise! This book won’t actually teach you how to talk about books you haven’t read, but rather, it’ll teach you a certain way of thinking about books. I first saw it mentioned by @mattthomas— he tweeted a while back that this was the book that helped him most with his PhD work, so I bought it for my wife the PhD candidate, and then finally read it myself.

Instead of straight-reviewing the book (thank God I’m not a real book reviewer!) here are some thoughts about reading that I’ve been developing and collecting (most of them are not my own, of course) with some passages from the book as “backup”:

* * *

Reading is an act of selection, or subtraction.

Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

And part of what makes us interesting isn’t just what we’ve read, but what we haven’t read.

* * *

Skimming is a kind of reading.

Here’s Francis Bacon (via):

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Read the conclusion sentence first, skip the boring parts, take things out of order—it really doesn’t matter.

* * *

Nobody reads the same book.

When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… 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…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.

You become particularly aware of this as a writer:

Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it. There is nothing astonishing in this disjuncture; since their inner books differ by definition, the one the reader has superimposed on the book is unlikely to seem familiar to the writer.

* * *

Every book is self-help.

“Reading is really the search for the self through others.” - Laurence Musgrove

The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in—a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it if only he has the wisdom not to end the journey there.

This passage is impeded by the fucked-up way we teach students to think about books:

Paralyzed by the respect due to texts and the prohibition against modifying them, forced to learn them by heart or to memorize what they “contain,” too many students lose their capacity for escape and forbid themselves to call on their imagination in circumstances where that faculty would be extraordinarily useful.

Which is why blackout poetry and marginalia are activities that can help us break out of the mindset that books are sacred, permanent artifacts, and push us towards the idea that books are simply fodder for our own creativity.

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