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Saturday, March 17, 2018
Can You Discuss Books That You Haven’t Read?
The tagline on the back cover of a book I just skimmed says: “If you don’t read one book this year, make this the one!” The name of the book, by Pierre Bayard, is How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
What a provocative title and premise!
The book jacket says this book “is in the end a love letter to books, offering a whole new perspective on how we read and absorb them. It’s a book for book lovers everywhere to enjoy, ponder, and agree about – and perhaps even read.”
The book reminded me of when I was in high school and struggled to keep up with all of the books I had to read and I resorted to reading about the book vs. reading the book. I had a greater appreciation for the messages of these classics and I was inspired to read some of these books years later when a grade didn’t depend on it.
But this book highlights a real problem – with canons of significant works of literature and non-fiction and poetry from centuries past and beyond, how could one have read all of them? Further, each year thousands of great books – which represents only a tiny fraction of what’s released, the reader feels further at a disadvantage to keep up with even knowing these books exist, barely having time to read reviews of them let alone time to actually read some of them.
My wife has told me her book club gatherings, once consisting of 9-10 women, would inevitably reveal hardly anyone read the selected book. But that wouldn’t stop them from hanging out and even discussing the themes or values of the book.
Bayard’s book is not merely one that intends to show people how to fake a conversation about a book one hasn’t read. It also explores the notion of what it really means to read a book and to decipher what we each take away from the books we are exposed to.
Bayard wonders whether it’s futile to read any book if we can’t read more than a handful compared to the millions of volumes flooding libraries, stores, and schools, but that is like wondering if we’re really living a life when we only get to experience a tiny measure of what’s out there. Perhaps to read --or to live – is exactly that, to do either in whatever measure we can absorb them. In fact, I would further argue that to read books is what gives our life understanding, meaning, and pleasure. To read is to live.
Still, the author poses a frustrating question: “Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain?”
Keeping in line with something the book supports, I only skimmed it, and this can only offer incomplete but heartfelt conclusions about it.
Here are several excerpts that could inspire you to further debate and dialogue:
1. “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 his journey there.”
2. “Beyond the possibility of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, by leading us back to its source. To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment, when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”
3. “Although students are initiative during their education into the art of reading and are even taught how to talk about books, the art of talking about books they haven’t read is singularly absent from our curricula, although no one had ever thought to question the premise that it is necessary to have read a book in order to talk about it. So why are we astonished by their distress when they are questioned on an exam about a book they don’t “know” and cannot find the where without to reply?”
4. “The key in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation. What better gift could you make to a student than to render him sensitive to the art of invention which is to say, self-invention? All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”
So which books will you not read – and talk about?
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