Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Read about Books You Haven't Read

Two articles which I read (or did I?) recently seem like they'd go together well: Sam Anderson's astonishingly well-written NY Mag "review" of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read and Matthew P. Brown's piece for Common-place, "Undisciplined Reading."
And I may as well throw in this, Scott McLemee's column lauding/considering the recent n+1 pamphlet (which, yes, I did order) about regrets and reading.

Alright, let's actually dispense with the irony: I have indeed read these articles and hope you do too. However, if you wish to read what I have to think about them first, read on.

The premise of the n+1 pamphlet is the unfortunate interlocking of regret and avid readership: to be passionate about reading is to mourn the books you should have read years ago or to lament the books which should never have been read and which still occupy too much disk space.

Interestingly enough (at least for this post), regret is the only opinion one can't (or doesn't) express during the types of peri-literary activities Bayard endorses as a necessary and pleasant part of a literary life—most of which boil down to cocktail party wankery. The reason regrets are excluded from these conversations and activities (which potentially include scholarship or reviewing, especially if it's broad and fast, allusive and synthetic, omnivorous and arbitrary, as most of it is) is that regret is a sort of imprimatur of authentic experience with the book in question, a proof that it has been absorbed enough at the present for one to regret its prior absence or its shameful persistence in one's life.

Of course regret can be faked as easily as knowledge, and there is no reason why a particularly good cocktail wit may not use such a strategy to convince his audience of the depth of his reading. ("Ah, if I hadn't waited until I was in my twenties to read Proust—I should have been able to spend all that decade re-reading it!") A prime example of this may be found in (or so I believe) Clive James's Cultural Amnesia.

Yet regret remains for us perhaps the most definitive expression of authenticity when it comes to a reading life. It insists that not only do we read, we read in the consciousness of our development as readers, a development which is identical with that of our maturation and which occurs alongside a deepening sense of life's variety and nature. To regret a discontinuity between either the timing or the value of what we read and the life we are living at that moment and place is to assert the primacy of literature (in a broad sense) over our formation as persons, to claim the superintending presence of some tutelary gods whose words may effect wondrous changes in our whole concept of life and our intended path through it. This is serious stuff! And cocktail gossip—or scholarship, or reviewing—cannot be this serious, because these activities are professional in nature and in execution. They are too close to how we actually live to admit the always failed prospect of how we hope to live through books—regretfully.

Life is a series of tests of our growth as readers; I may be, at this moment, at the perfect age to read Stendhal (I probably am), but would I be ready to live a life like Sorel's?

Life is also a series of digressions from reading; in this I take a page from the Undisciplined Reading piece when Brown says, in the hope of finding an answer to the question, "how then does reading become a means to the new, the unknown, the undiscovered?" He answers himself: "one might use discipline to escape discipline, that freeing the mind is achieved by entering into restrictive procedures that liberate thinking."

His comparison to the pietistic Puritans is here very apt, and even more apt to my point about digression: The Puritans understood everyday life as a series of digressions from one's true calling—worship or study of Scripture. I here get into rather murky territory, as the efforts of many critics to force theological seriousness and intensity (or the trappings thereof—cf. George Steiner, Matthew Arnold) into literature have had a rather poor conversion rate.

In calling life a series of digressions from reading, I am not so much suggesting that reading is the most important work of one's life, but rather that it is, for obvious reasons, the most narrative. Looking at everyday life as a digression from what one reads is a way of making one's life coherent to oneself. I recognize that this notion is not very different from a certain functionalist view of religion, but I do think it veers well away from religion in a way that prevents the two from being psychologically or ideologically entangled too much.

So back to regrets. Having noble, articulate and, let's face it, tasteful regrets represents for many people, most of whom are also readers, prima facie evidence that one is maturing, and that one takes this process reflectively, but also in stride.

I should rush on to say, however, that the liberatory cavalierness of Bayard's book is not the dialectical opposite to the high moral/literary seriousness of n+1's rue which it may seem to be. Bayard is easily read to say, "so what if I tell you my opinions about Tolstoy without having read all War and Peace! Everyone does it—let's be honest and have fun chatting up to or beyond the limits of plausible conjecture on the matter!" I, umm, haven't read his book, but it sounds like he is really saying, "there are very many arbitrary value judgments placed on forms of literary behavior [as is the case with sexual behavior]. Given that literature is, for the most part, a relatively closed formal system in terms of possibilities, motivations, and sociological arrangements, it is unreasonable to suggest that smart people can't say some interesting things about a book or author given enough context and peripheral knowledge about said author or book. Especially if that person is witty, French, and wears black constantly."

Is this reasonable inauthenticity the antithesis of what we might call (purely for kicks) n+1's unreasonable authenticity? I think the answer is no. Bayard (or Franco Moretti, whose idea of distant reading I may be unfairly introjecting into Bayard's book) and n+1 are complementary, and not in the sense in which idealism and realism are or may be complementary (I'm not sure what sense that would be anyway, but whatever).

Regret is the acknowledgment that it is impossible to correct past mistakes—omissions or commissions—if they are truly a part of a character-forming process. Cocktail gossip (or the intellectual con game) is ultimately the acknowledgment that you will never read all of what you should, or all of what you would like to, and even these two things probably don't match up—the number of books you should read greatly outnumber the books you'd like to read, even if you're an n+1 editor. Both regret and the experience of playing the intellectual con game are humbling—the admission that one has made mistakes and the fear that one will make a mistake—these things force us to make assessments of the state of our character, of our path of maturation, of our tendencies and deficiencies.

I am, however, being too naive, although purposefully so. I do believe that regret and the experience of playing the intellectual con game can be humbling, but of course both can be tremendously preening, ego-boosting activities whenever they are validated by others. Yet pursuing these activities as complementary processes of intellectual growth creates new desires—ideally the desire to feel validated in both activities simultaneously, a situation which will likely lead one to actually make the self-assessment which one is implying that one has already made. One might find oneself asking things like, "Would I really have been affected if I had read The Catcher in the Rye at the appropriate time of my life, rather than after it (or before it)?" But the important question, and I think the one most likely to result from practicing regret and deceit in equal measure, is, "Would I benefit from reading The Catcher in the Rye now, trying to determine what I may have missed?" Salinger is perhaps a poor example here—a better one might be The Book of Job or Hamlet. Angst is probably not the best mood for reading these books, and I would likely do well to wait until those tides have receded (if they do—do they?) to approach those altars again.

That is a humbling thought because it forces upon me the sense of my life as a programmatic sequence, with limits and affinities which are to some extent not mine to control. I can imagine all the things The Divine Comedy will say to me when I have reached "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," but I can only do so schematically. To recognize this limitation is an acknowledgment of the maturation I have yet to accomplish, and the thinness of my current sense of life. That is, I believe, what literature is for in the first place.

Edit: I got the n+1 pamphlet in the mail today and read it. I feel it will be of tremendous help trying to fill in the gaps of my historical and sociological knowledge, which I was hoping for some guidance on.

But what struck me was how much the interlocutors, most of whom are over thirty, made use of what Hobsbawm might call the "short twenties"—the period between graduation and one's thirtieth birthday. While most talk about how they wasted this time on grad programs (the antipathy toward post-graduate work surprised me, although after some reflection seems more in line with other n+1 preferences) or on abortive attempts at journalism, it is clear that these men and women were extremely active and fruitful—mentally, intellectually—after graduation.

But there was something a little off about the shade of these regrets. Each panelist seemed to offer a narrative in which the short twenties were used to correct the mistakes or deficiencies of one's undergraduate education. Each seemed to have had a conscious sense of error which they held in front of them throughout the eight or so years following college, but this consciousness seemed to have puzzled them rather than offering them a program for rehabilitation.

I suppose I sympathize to some extent, although I have at this time more intentions of following up on things I only brushed in college rather than a deep sense of wasted time. The bitterness with which the first discussion panel denounces college as "summer camp" seemed a little overdone—would any of these people have been where they are without this summer camp? Let's put it bluntly: most of the panelists are Ivy League graduates, and the whole matrix of privilege and entitlement that goes with that brute fact cannot be written off as "summer camp." To degrade the undergraduate experience so thoroughly is a tremendously facile way of asserting one's self-sufficiency; I wish in all their reflection someone had pointed this out.

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