Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Don't Bother Reading This (Book Review: How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read)

So I've just finished a book called "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read." It's by a French professor of literature and psychoanalysis named Pierre Bayard. I recommend it, I found it entertaining and interesting. Despite it's title, the book is less about how to talk about books you haven't read then a refreshing call for us to cease being ashamed of not having read certain books. First, you don't have to have read a book to talk about it. I've never read Moby Dick but I can refer to all kinds of things about it that I'm sure are true. Second, even if you have read a book and you wish to converse with someone else about the book you and the other person may have completely different ideas about the book--so different, it's as if you didn't even read the same book. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's what makes talking about books interesting. Here, he gives a nice example of an anthropologist who, believing great literature is universal, takes Hamlet along with her for a stay with an African tribe. She tries to tell them the story, but it turns out that they don't believe in ghosts and aren't at all offended by Hamlet's mom marrying his uncle soon after her husband (and Hamlet's father's) death. So things kind of go downhill from there w/r/t the universality of literature.

Finally, Bayard notes that even if you really, truly, honestly did read the whole damn book, you've probably forgotten it by now. So what does it matter if you've really read it? You have some impression of the book (probably) but you could have the same impression without needed to actually have read the whole darned thing. This point intrigued me so, forthwith, a list of books I've read but forgotten, when I read them, and what I remember about them:

The Red Badge of Courage (7th or 8th grade): I hated this book very much. Our English teacher devised a brutally clever means of ensure we read the book under the guise of teaching us about symbolism. We had to keep a list of every page on which the word "red" or some synonym appeared. Let me tell you, Stephen Crane knew how to use his symbolism. But mostly I found the book boring and dry. Almost literally dry as in the one part I still remember has the main character wandering around bleeding after a battle in the oppressive summer heat wearing a wool uniform. The whole book felt like that to me.

A Catcher in the Rye (10th grade?): This book really annoyed me. It was supposed to speak to adolescents and it was even supposed to be risque with all its naughty words. I found it pretentious and ridiculous. First off, "damn" and "hell" just don't count as swears anymore. Not if you're older than, say, 8. Second, I thought Holden Caufield's use of swear words was all wrong. Like someone who's a fluent, but not native, English speaker.

1984 (10th Grade): I enjoyed this book a lot. (I'm sort of cheating a bit here because I've re-read parts of this recently (and it's even scarier now--it really is like a handbook for modern politics)). Still, whether you've read the book or not you probably already basically get it.

To Kill a Mockingbird (10th grade?): Eh.

Great Expectations (12th grade): I just hated this book. It was way too long and utterly pointless and ended with a surprise ending that I found utterly unbelievable. Surely Dickens' reputation is not being enhanced by this book? I like A Christmas Carrol though; or, at least, the Muppet Movie version of it.

Crime and Punishment (12th grade): I loved this book and it's one of the few books I read in High School with a scene so powerful I can still remember it vividly. Raskalnikov has a dream where a man beats his horse to death. It's unbearable. I need to read more Dostoevsky.

Madame Bovary (12th grade - college): Much to my surprise, and contrary to most of my classmates' opinions, I enjoyed this book a lot. I read every single word. I could not tell you a damn thing about it beyond it having to do with some woman in France who maybe had sex with people. Maybe someday I'll re-read it.

Descartes's Meditations (Freshman year college): I remember sitting down one afternoon and reading this whole thing through. I hadn't gotten through an entire assign book for the "Great Works" class all year and I was determined to crank this one out, and I did it. The only problem was, even though the words were passing in front of my eyes, I retained absolutely nothing. This is different from the Madame Bovary case above where I have since forgotten all about the book. I mean as soon as I stood up from my chair the only thing I could remember about Descartes was "I think therefore I am." And heck, I knew that much going in.

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