Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Ways of reading, ways of thinking


Full title: How to talk about books you haven't read
Author: Pierre Bayard

Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 208 pages, hard cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA(2009)

On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)


Reading, Pierre Bayard thinks, needs to be regarded in a way that puts the very idea of attentive, close, polite reading at a halt. He professes that reading is a lot more haphazard than we like to think; something closer to skimming, i.e. programmatically incomplete reading. This will sound outrageous to many. At the end of the day, reading has become so organically tied to us we refuse to believe it is a habit which, like all habits, has been appropriated through the labor of practice and obedience. But the point is so simply put in Bayard’s book, and so closely to the core of our experience of reading (and not to the myths and metaphors associated with it) that we can’t resist the temptation to put our own selves in perspective.
“The encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain encouragement not to read at all. 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?”
To Bayard, skimming is a lot closer to what most readers experience while reading. In fact, reading is not a form of memorization, but one of forgetting. When we read – his argument goes – we have to make room for what comes after the words we are reading right here, right now. And that room is made by removing things that stay in the way of those words; which are, yes, you guessed it, things we forget.


British Museum Reading Room
Source: Wikipedia
And here’s the most important argument of Pierre Bayard’s: reading is to be found in the way we manage to connect the pieces of text that we retain.
"Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment. It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a large part of the whole.”
Because we forget most of the stuff we read, we are bound to recollect, when that is possible, the trajectories of one passage towards another, of one set of words towards the one next to it. Ultimately, when we read we create a sort of universal text, the text of all possible connections. This may seem nostalgic of Borges, and maybe Bayard is, indeed, a fan of the blind Argentinian. Borges himself, with his intuition, was capable to imagine that great expanse of cultural matter that presents itself to us in the form of a library. Spot on!