Thursday, March 22, 2007

Either read or don't

For some reason, a book called How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard, has people all atwitter:
An all too predictable moralism surrounds the reading of books. There is a prescribed way of reading: one page at a time, starting from the front of the book to the back, paying close attention to every single page in order, no skipping around. But the reality is that most of us graze — read a bit, put the book down, start up again. We may pay more attention to one part than another, skim boring parts, and even (heaven forfend) leap over long, dull tracts. Some very strange people even admit to reading the end of a book before the beginning, which is sort of like eating dessert before dinner.

But let's remember that even one of the greatest readers of literature, Samuel Johnson, admitted that "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is." In fact, Johnson seemed to have made quite a career of not reading. He once lamented to his friend Mrs. Thrale, "Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page." And reacting to advice that once started, a book should be read all the way through, he opined, "A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?"
I know I don't read like this -- I am a serial monogamist when it comes to books, one at a time, please -- nor do I know many readin' folks who do, so Davis' huge generalization in the first graph can be immediately ignored. Well, most of the essay can, for that matter. It looks like Davis pulled some quotes from Bartlett's to window-dress an extremely weak topic in time to make a deadline.

Look, folks, it's pretty simple. Either you've read the book, or you haven't. If you've read it, your opinion about it, whatever it is, is valid. If you haven't, then it isn't. That's all.

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