Dec/Jan 2008

Skimming Is Fundamental

A psychoanalyst wryly probes the meaning of nonreading

Billy Collins


An obvious question facing a reviewer of Pierre Bayard's book on the business of reading and nonreading is whether or not to actually read it. Writing a review of a book on the subject of feigning familiarity with books you have not read without reading the book in question holds an undeniable appeal.

And you, reader of this review, may not want to read Bayard's book, either, since one way of not reading a book is surely to make do with what you pick up from other sources, such as reviews. The title itself, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, is enough to tip you to the contents. Who among us does not recognize in those few words the insecurity we feel about the many gaps in our literary knowledge? Who has not pretended to be familiar with a book long forgotten or never read at all? Indeed, who could not write his own little confessional treatise on the subject? Another reason not to read Bayard—who will remember him in a hundred years?—is to use the time to read a work of undisputed cultural significance. For me, Barchester Towers springs to mind, for I admit to having never read two sentences of Anthony Trollope.

But wait. Do I hear you blurting out, "Hey, neither have I," or do I sense you hedging, rubbing your chin, consulting the ceiling, and muttering, "Mmm, yes, Trollope. Always found him a bit . . . windy"? But for all of us, the question remains, whether or not to read this book of Pierre Bayard's.

Stacks of first editions from Richard Prince’s library. From Richard Prince, edited by Nancy Spector (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2007).

Maybe I'll just skim. Well, it turns out that skimming is one of the four accepted ways of not reading a book, the others being: not even picking it up, hearing about it from secondary sources (reviews!), and reading it but then forgetting it. All that information can be derived from the table of contents alone. More intense skimming reveals that Bayard is not simply offering shortcuts to reading and giving tips on how to glibly cover your ignorance. This is no Literary Feigning for Dummies. Rather, he is intent on arguing that nonreading is a positive act that can be more edifying than reading and one that is more fl attering to an author than actually devouring the contents of his book. You see, more important than any single book is what Bayard calls the "collective library" of all books—the sweeping panorama of culture. Better to know the "location" of a book in relation to the other books in the culture than to waste precious time on its details, which unavoidably involve sentence-by-sentence reading. Nonreading is not just the irresponsible refusal to sit in a chair for hours turning pages; it is a "genuine activity." Indeed, Bayard feels, choosing not to read shows greater respect for the book and its author, because the book's location, its place in the overall culture, is more significant than its content. The literal reading of a book must now be seen as a loss rather than a gain for anyone interested in his own literary cultivation. Among the benefits of nonreading is that it allows us to avoid being blind to the forest of literature because of the trees of its individual texts. The serious nonreader, it turns out, is more committed to books than the molelike page-turner, and further, he possesses a broader, more informed view of literature.

So there.

A nonreader of Bayard's book might be tempted to break down and read it (as I am now, as you have gathered) largely for the advice it promises on how to hide one's ignorance from others. But the section of the book devoted to such "confrontations" is really the least interesting. Covering potentially unpleasant encounters with strangers, professors, lovers, and authors themselves, Bayard rests his case on exempla that do exactly what he claims reading does, i.e., distract us from the conceptual whole of the discussion. His progress begins to slump noticeably when he tells the long story of an American anthropologist and her failure to convey the meaning of Hamlet to a remote tribe of West Africans. Similar doldrums are experienced during a synopsis of Pierre Siniac's Ferdinaud CÚline (which I skimmed), as well as during a protracted plot summary of the film Groundhog Day (which I skipped).

Ironists will appreciate the half-serious tone of all this. Bayard can offer sincere counsel to the guilty nonreader while he is having fun spelling out the advantages of literary abstinence. But such high jinks sometimes lead to conclusions too insistent on their own paradoxical cleverness. At one point, Professor Bayard argues that students who have not read an assigned book are able to bring to the discussion of it an "originality that they would undoubtedly have lacked had they undertaken to read the book." Such phrasings fall short of the true wit found in Oscar Wilde's "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so," which Bayard dutifully quotes.

The conceptual pace of the book picks up in the third and final section, which concentrates on our behavior in a world where conventional and stable notions of "book" and "reader" have been brought into question, deconstructed in the true critical sense of the term. Having established that "non-reading . . . may take more subtle forms than a simple absence of reading pure and simple," Bayard argues that readers themselves have a tenuous grasp of what they have read due to the process of forgetfulness that goes on even as we read. This kind of erasure leaves the reader with only a "screen" memory of what he has read. Instead of enjoying any direct contact with books he has dutifully consumed, each reader develops an "inner library" of partially remembered passages packaged in a distorted image of the book itself. In any discussion of a book, the inner libraries of readers and nonreaders alike, not the book itself, are roused to interaction. The result is a "virtual library," a zone controlled by images of ourselves as readers and so strongly colored by self-image, shame, pretentiousness, insincerity, and guilt as to have little connection to any single book. As you can see, we have drifted far from the simple pond of Mother Goose.

Reading does not simply enrich us; it represents and finally distorts us, says Bayard. The books we think we have ingested exist only as half-remembered fragments, so we never fully overlap with the content of our reading. Yet we insist on presenting ourselves as literary creatures, walking libraries who house the sum total of our literary intake. Our very identities depend on our image of ourselves as readers and thus can be imperiled by exchanges with other readers and nonreaders. Such social interaction is further complicated by the fact that there is no way to determine whether the person you are speaking with has read or not read a book unless you drag him into the "realm of violence" known as school, where "thorough reading" can be tested through various forms of interrogation, including, we can imagine, the pop quiz. As Bayard puts it, "where two non-readers of the same book carry on a dialogue about it, it is actually impossible for either of the non-readers to know whether the other is lying." This vagueness is compounded by the difficulty we have in knowing "whether or not we ourselves [my italics] have read a book, so evanescent is our reading." The whole point of literary discussion, as any book-club meeting will attest, is not the book itself but the creation of a meeting ground where our inner books can happily intersect regardless of their dim connections to the original. The claim to having read a book is so complex and unverifiable that we are better off accepting all this ambiguity in the interest of maintaining enjoyable literary relationships with others. I mean, people are more important than books, right? Right??

Whether the wry tone of his book is Bayard's own or was added by translator Jeffrey Mehlman, there is no doubt that it accounts for its charm. The thin, ironic air of the book's atmosphere creates a fine distance from which to view Bayard's skeptical examination of reading and his sly valorization of nonreading. He is at his best when he pulls various rugs out from under our received ideas about reading. He says, for example, not only that we as readers are constantly changed by the forgetting of some books and the addition of others but that the book itself is not a fixed thing, rather an "infinitely mobile object." Books change depending on context, and their instability only adds to the complex nature of literary experience.

Books finally "vanish" into the discourse surrounding them and become "phantoms," "fl eeting, hallucinatory objects." Once the mobility of both the book and its reader (and nonreader) are admitted, any notion we have of the reliability of literary discussion and/or critical analysis slides off the table and goes the way of the plummeting teacup.

Bayard will probably convince only a rarefied few readers that "talking about books you haven't read is an authentically creative activity" and that doing so may constitute one's "first encounter with the demands of creation." An even smaller group will share his lament that nonreading is "singularly absent from our curricula." As much as a program of educational reform based on the teaching of nonreading may appeal to a significant number of students, it is not likely to find a place outside the delightfully theoretical spiderweb of Bayard's weaving. Humorous, insightful, and mildly unsettling, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read offers readers the rare opportunity to contradict an author's thesis by simply opening his book and reading it.

Billy Collins is the former poet laureate of the United States.

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