Sunday, November 11, 2007

How to review a book you haven't read

One way is to quote from a blog post you wrote months before the book was published. The book is Pierre Bayard's new book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which is reviewed in today's NYT Book Review by Jay McInerney, and my post was written last May, in response to a John Updike speech at a booksellers' convention, in which he lamented the decline of our book culture under the influence of new media and the Internet.

"The book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets," warned Updike. I suggested that what constitutes reading is larger than that, and has more sturdy, maleable boundaries than Updike seemed to think.
Is individuality really that clear cut? Are book boundaries really that inviolable?

I forget so much of what I read, even the work of my favorite writers—especially my favorite writers. Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Is this normal, or should I be seeing a neurologist? I used to worry a lot about this.

I became more accepting of my literary amnesia after I happened upon a sly 1970 essay, “My Recollections of Kafka,” by John Fowles, in which no less a literary light than the author of “The Magus” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” makes what he calls an “appalling confession of ignorance”—that he has forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Kafka and his work, which he had read while at Oxford. “What I think I know well is his spirit, his tone of voice, his coloration (or lack of it), his drift, his one brilliant metaphor,” writes Fowles, and that’s about it.

As an Oxford graduate and former schoolmaster, Fowles may have been gently mocking the academic assumption that the more you can accurately recall of a work of literature, the better. But we don’t have to prove anything to ourselves when we read for pleasure. Outside the classroom and the pages of literary journals, you could almost view literature as the residue that remains after all the details have faded, living on in a kind of twilight zone of the dimly remembered and half forgotten. No sharp edges at all, just a big blur, really.
For Bayard, the blur is extended beyond our own fuzzy memory to include skimming and secondhand knowledge as well.
Lest the reader, or the nonreader, think that Bayard underestimates the power of reading, he proposes that we are all essentially literary constructs, defined by our own inner libraries: the books we’ve read, skimmed and heard about. “We are the sum of these accumulated books,” he writes. (And make no mistake about it, this prof is far more literate and widely read than he pretends to be.)
Sounds like an interesting book. I might even read it, if I get around to it.

1 comment:

Wren said...

"Sometimes I’ll go to retrieve something from the library stacks of my mind, and that’s when the fuses blow and the lights go out. More often, I’ll emerge with what I’m looking for, but in a form that bears only a passing resemblance to the original."

So glad to discover, once again, that I am not alone. Lovely writing, Guy. Thanks for the link to the review.