I love Bayard’s book, think he’s right to call into question the whole issue of reading. What does it mean to have read a book? I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake right this very second, so it’s fresh in my mind, but a decade from now, it won’t be. So, a decade from now, will I have read it? Two decades from now? What does it mean, then, to read?
Meanwhile, I’m perfectly capable of talking about many books I’ve never read, but know a great deal about. Indeed, I could probably write better essays about them than many people who’ve actually read them…
Bayard is right, I think. The whole concept of reading needs to be redefined. What’s clear is that to have read something is not necessarily to have read something.
I am tutoring at the moment in a writing center, and someone there asked me what I do when I read something. I told them the following:
1. Whenever I’m interested in a topic, I try to keep lists of any writing related to that topic (essentially an annotated bibliography). So, for instance, next semester, I’m teaching Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, so I’ve been keeping track of texts relevant to that topic. (I observed another one just today, and made a note of it.)
2. Whenever I read something, I take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts on it. I know that, later on, I might not remember the thing in much detail, so these thoughts/summary help me remember why I read the text in question, and what I thought about it.
Do I always do these things to perfection? No. But I try; they’re good habits to get into and they save a lot of time later on when I finally sit down to write about topics I’ve been thinking about for years…
Actually, I have a policy that, whenever anyone mentions any text to me, I try to become at least passingly familiar with it, even if that means just reading the Wikipedia page for it. I don’t care whether it’s a popular thing or a scholarly thing.
Memory is finicky and our ability to retain things depends on whether we can connect new knowledge to previous knowledge. So I’m always looking for ways to fit new stuff in. Recently my pal Jeremy mentioned that I should be on the lookout for books by Ivy Compton-Burnett. I will admit here that I haven’t read anything by her (though I’ve been looking in bookstores for some of her work). Meanwhile, I read her Wikipedia page which claims the following:
Apart from Dolores (1911), a traditional novel she later rejected as something “one wrote as a girl”, Compton-Burnett’s fiction deals with domestic situations in large households which, to all intents and purposes, invariably seem Edwardian. The description of human weaknesses and foibles of all sorts pervades her work, and the family that emerges from each of her novels must be seen as dysfunctional in one way or another. Starting with Pastors and Masters (1925), Compton-Burnett developed a highly individualistic style. Her fiction relies heavily on dialogue and demands constant attention on the reader’s part: there are instances in her work where important information is casually mentioned in a half sentence. Her use of punctuation is deliberately perfunctory: there are no colons or semi-colons, no exclamation marks, no italics.
That may turn out to not be true, but in the meantime it gives me something to go on, as well as think about…
Everybody has in their mind a few books that someone ought to have read to really know anything about anything. I tend to relish those moments when someone’s extremely excited and I can matter-of-factly tell them that “No,” I haven’t read their favorite book, etc. The idea that it’s best to say you have read something seems fraught from the start, everybody (at least those frequenting sites like this) already has a pile of shit they’re reading for reasons like curiosity, excitement, or education, they should not in turn feel obligated to read out of guilt, or fear of being judged. Although I’ve lied about every single textbook I’ve ever said I’d read and a bunch of books like “The Bluest Eye,” or short fiction assigned because the teacher’s friend wrote it. Fuck that guy. I’ll lie about way more than reading some angsty Carver ripoff to that fucking guy.
Ulysses, all Gaddis, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve read the first page of Ulysses so many times that I can semi-quote the first couple sentences, which makes people think for sure that I read it.
I agree with you in principle, but I think Adam was more referring to how it could be “professionally damaging” for someone to tell their department chair or whatever that they’d never read Tolstoy, etc.