Reading without reading

March 22, 2007

Since books have yet to shuffle their bound coils for digital paradise, this Chronicle piece by Lennard J. Davis seems rather appropriate for my fellow library workers… and maybe a little chilling. Apparently, a University of Paris professor by the name of Pierre Bayard has written a book entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read. To top it off, the book has become a best seller over there. [Insert gratuitous cheap shot about post-structuralism, Jerry Lewis, or Google’s top hit for French military victories, here.] Never having read the book myself, I’ll take Bayard’s advice and say that it’s a steming load of merde.

In all seriousness, Davis does acknowledge the implications of Bayard’s advice. Not reading may seem like a vice (though I’m starting to believe more and more that the opposite has become true), but Davis also considers how it might also have some virtue. He begins by deconstructing the prescribed way of reading a book. (Yeah, I said “deconstructing.” Whaddya expect here?) In his opinion, many of us actually “graze” through books, which means that we do not go through them in a fixed, “linear” fashion.

As many of you are already aware, the conventional wisdom pits print materials like books up against digital information in a variety of formats. The old-fashioned way of getting information is through those bad old authoritarian print materials, which practically dictate that you read from cover-to-cover without jumping around. However, in this new Golden Age of digital information, you can jump from one online source to another because it’s like anarchy, man! However, as Davis says, this is merely a dictate of convention, not of the materials themselves.

I have pondered this question before, wondering if I might have missed something (beyond the obvious, anyway) in the inherent distinctions between books and online resources. However, speaking from personal experience, I firmly believe that you can jump around in books. They might not offer links that allow you to go off on different tangents, but they can still trigger a reaction that makes you look at something else. Many years ago, I would waste a few hours at a time reading film encyclopedias. I would go to look up one movie, but something would compel me to look at the entry for another movie. Maybe I did put forth a little more effort than clicking a link, but my reading of such volumes was certainly not linear. But then, such reference works do not lend themselves to linear reading. Other books do… or do they? Certainly, more “linear” non-fiction books lend themselves to such grazing.

Even in works of literature, I might pick up a favorite and read a section that I found particularly edifying. As in Davis’ case, some literary works have remained unread or partially read on my shelf for years. Naturally, I tried my hand at reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the bookmark has remained on page seven for the same number of years. Unfortunately, even my favorite fiction authors (all exiles, for whatever reason) have become victims of neglect. I consider Vladimir Nabokov one of my favorites, but I have only completely read his holy trinity of Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire. His earlier and later books await completion or picking up. The same goes for Thomas Mann, another favorite of mine (despite Nabokov’s antipathy towards him). I remember reading and liking his short stories in college, but I have only gotten part of the way through Doctor Faustus. As for my other favorite exile, Salman Rushdie, I have completed some of his books. I read The Satanic Verses in a postmodernism course my junior year of college, which got me hooked on Rushdie. Although I especially liked his writing style, I had a difficult time picking up quite a few of the allusions, with which SV is thick. (Naturally, one has to have a good understanding of Islam, as well as other topics, to truly “understand” it. Unfortunately for Rushdie, Ayatollah Khomeini understood it in a manner that made him issue a fatwa against the author.)

Naturally, one could say the same thing about opera. Sadly, even though I consider myself a major fan of German opera, I can’t honestly say that I have sat down and subjected myself to a complete opera by Richard Wagner. (I suppose Rossini was right, though I prefer those wonderful moments over Rossini’s pieces.) I remember borrowing a video of Tristan und Isolde several years ago, and fidgeting as I forced myself to sit through Act I. I wasn’t sure if it was the staging or the fact that I was watching it on a 13” TV, but something did not connect. I kept wondering, “When are they going to drink the damned love potion?” I also bought a complete DVD set of James Levine’s Metropolitan Opera production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but I have yet to watch a bit of it. I would like to get the set of the controversial centenary staging at Bayreuth, which sounds more intriguing, but it seems a bit excessive if I haven’t already viewed the one I bought. As for Richard Strauss, I have little problem with his operas, especially the 100 minute shockers Salome and Elektra.

Anyway, enough of this self-flagellation. The closing of Davis’ piece seems most instructive for those of us who worry about coming across as frauds:

    Perhaps we need a little less guilt and one-upmanship in this enterprise of reading. Let’s openly acknowledge that there are a library of ways to read, and that, being humans, we are somewhat prone to forgetting, imagining, delaying, and even not doing. If we were a little more open and honest about what we haven’t read, and if our colleagues were a little less judgmental and sanctimonious, we might loosen the harness of guilt that holds us back from actually picking up some book we’ve forsaken in the past. Who knows? Admitting that we don’t read might actually help us to read again.

The same goes for opera, too, especially Wagner. For his next project, perhaps Bayard could take on that topic, and maybe collaborate with a musicologist.

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2 Responses to “Reading without reading”

  1. Amber Lynn Says:

    I was at a workshop today in which a librarian said he has noticed a decline in the use of his print reference collection, both with the patrons as well as with the reference staff. There could be many reasons for this, I guess… electronic reference materials are more current? We’ve become too physically lazy to walk to the stacks?

    My guess is that people have always grazed through materials. In our modern lexicon, maybe you could call it “thinking in hypertext.” The technology of the printed book doesn’t facilitate grazing in the same way that the Web does, but nothing stops us from reading a book in whatever mode we choose.

    I graze music all the time, too. There are many Mozart operas I’ve never listened to or watched in their entirety, but I certainly have listened to the arias many times. But, in pop music, with the near-death of “the single” as well as “the album” in favor of iTunes downloading, are people grazing less or grazing more?


  2. […] pm (Uncategorized) Well, I think it’s original, anyway. Some of you may have already read my posting from yesterday, which discusses how we read, as well as our apparent intellectual shortcomings in […]


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