Monday, November 05, 2007

Practical Reading

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, Bloomsbury USA, 2007

With such a provocative title, Bayard almost guarantees his book will become something of a notorious classic. Far too often we’ve been all at parties where the topic of conversation turns to a film we haven’t seen, a food we haven’t eaten, and — if like me you care about books and reading more than any other past time — books we haven’t actually read.

Luckily for us, Bayard has written the go-to tome for when it comes to those sticky social situations when you’re standing around, lukewarm boxed white wine in your plastic cup, crumpled napkin tucked between fingers and paper plate of hors' dourves, and the talk turns to big novels. Most people haven’t read much in the way of fat Russian novels, and if they have read Dostoyevsky, it’s something short like Notes from the Underground. If they’ve read Tolstoy it was probably that short story in high school, the one about how much land does a man need.

Haven’t we all been to parties or stuck in speeches, and suddenly it’s as though another language has been taken up by everyone around us? “Oh yes, what I like best about Gravity’s Rainbow is Pynchon’s use of numerology in the structure and how each part of the novel explicitly and implicitly makes use of various archetypal elements corresponding to this numeric pattern. The zodiacal circle that makes up the fourth section brings us full circle to the opening chapter’s ‘screaming comes across the sky’ with the Schwarzgerät about to land…” And the next thing you know, someone is asking you, “And how did you like Pynchon’s latest novel?”

Well, what the hell can you do in such a situation? Who the hell’s got the time? The guy seems to only write 800 page tomes crammed with obscurities. 

Or perhaps you’re hanging out with the phenom-readers, those people who are always up on the latest about to break out novel, people who say things like, “Oh, yeah, I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics when it was in its galleys,” and this just as the hype machine is about to blow the novel up big time. These up-to-daters are always ready to dish on the book that’s days away from being on everyone’s tongues. Can you, in all honesty, sit there and admit that you’re reading a tattered pocket paperback of Welcome to the Monkey House? Who gives a shit if it’s a great book? Everyone’s going to roll their eyes at this little confession. The thing is nearly forty years old!

In a related scenario, you end up in the situation where it’s nothing but hipsters throwing around über-obscure pulp novels from the 1940s and 50s. This dude from work, you thought he was cool enough, invites you to come to his party and it’s all mood lighting, groovy furniture, other dudes with black hornrim glasses and pleather coats all sitting around dishing on the lesser known works of Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey, D. L. Champion, and Seabury Quinn. Are you telling me that you’d just let drop to these hepcats that you kinda like Agatha Christie? Really?

But let’s get back to the Russians for a moment. What should you do when someone starts throwing around the major works like Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov or, worse yet, obscure fat novels like The Adolescent? Bayard has your solution for you, ready made. You nod politely, wait until some time after the party, then club the speaker, blindfold his unconscious form, and ship him off to a Siberian workfarm. Later, you can put him through a farcical staged death sentence. It’s a win-win scenario — and boy, won’t he have learned a lesson about tolerance?

The book is chock-full of such helpful pieces of advice. A personal favorite is his retort to those who would pontificate based on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Rap them soundly on the head and declare, a la Dr. Johnson “Thus I refute you!”

Won’t that knock them out?

All in all, Bayard’s work is a clarion call, a wake up to our society’s overwhelming pressure to be considered well read or hip or with it in any sense of those words. Books, he informs us, are there for the enjoyment, but they are also there for the signification of what they imply about our culture or our esthetic place in culture vis a vis an exegesis of belief systems through our grasp of literature’s more transcendent motifs in an ontological sphere of reference. To have not understood Bayard’s more salient point would be to find oneself adrift in a deconstructivist paradigm of shifting realities wherein our social status rises in inverse proportion to our natural tendencies toward ownership of ideas through a Western hegemony of signifiers as imparted through masculine versus feminine or white versus black or any of the prevailing modes of either/or. Not in any Kierkegaardian sense of ethical stages of existence but more through the aberrant decoding as embodied in Eco’s aesthetic rather than through connotative interpretations of semiotic oppositions.

I can’t wait to read the screenplay!

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