The University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard’s best seller How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is flying off the shelves in France. Not only does Bayard tell readers how to fake literary orgasm, but he admits to giving lectures on books he hasn’t bothered to read. I’m sure Bayard’s book will be met with outrage from many academics on this side of the Atlantic who lack the French national penchant for public display and intellectual pretension. Obviously, there is something seriously reprehensible about Bayard’s know-nothing chutzpah (or whatever the French word for that is). Our goal as teachers is to teach what we know, not what we don’t. But, outrage aside, perhaps it’s time to admit that not reading has its virtues as well as its vices.
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?”
Is it always a good thing to read an entire book? When I was a graduate student, it dawned on me that I often had the most intelligent things to say about books I’d only half- or quarter-read. I was surprised by my observation — it didn’t seem to make sense. But it just seemed to work out that professors preferred my insightful and trenchant comments on, say, the first part of Tristram Shandy than on the whole wandering thing.
In that way, a little knowledge can be a practical thing.
Of course as teachers — particularly those of us who teach novels, poetry, and drama — we want our students to read the works we assign. Philosophically, we believe in educational standards. Practically, we find it boring to teach to a class of blank faces, students who fail to react to our insights or even jokes about literary characters and situations.
Most of us believe that there are a certain number of great works that define our national culture and our global literature. It is therefore a good thing that our students read those works in their entirety, know them, and remember them, so that we can have a common culture. E.D. Hirsch even published a book that told us what we should read in order to have a standard of “cultural literacy.” Any student who fails to read, or only half-reads, a great work is dodging his or her responsibility as a citizen. Or so the argument goes.
However, Bayard’s salvo can’t be entirely dismissed by our raising the banner of educational standards. After all, having once read a book isn’t the same as having recently read it. Lionel Trilling once famously told Edward Said that he thought the Columbia University humanities core, one of the early great-books curricula, “has the virtue of giving Columbia students a common basis in reading, and if they later forgot the books (as many always do) at least they would have forgotten the same ones.”
Most teachers can tell you that in any given class, there’s a bell curve of compliance in reading. The professor says hopefully, “I’m sure you all remember the chapter in which. … ” My working and charitable assumption is that half the class has read half the work. I even semi-seriously thought it might make sense to teach a course in the fall called “The First Half of Long Novels,” followed by the spring course “The Second Half of Long Novels.” The reality is that if you are a teacher, you will have to teach to the half-readers as well as to the ones who’ve finished every word. That students will read everything you assign is devoutly to be wished for but unlikely to happen.
Professors can’t afford to take a holier-than-thou position on this subject. After all, who watches the watchman? Have you really read all of War and Peace, or only Peace? Do you still remember it? All of it? Can I give you a pop quiz about your knowledge? And (be truthful!) isn’t it a vice rarely acknowledged that everyone occasionally nods “yes” when asked if they’ve read some major work — Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Paradise Lost, or even Lord of the Rings — when in their own heart they know they didn’t really, or at least not all of it?
Reading habits, like sleeping habits, are individual and varied. I like to read four or five books at once. It’s like being at a horse race — only one or two of the books might win. I don’t feel committed to finishing every book I start, and, in a way, isn’t it the writer’s fault if I’m not pulled along? I’m an inveterate book buyer, but like many collectors I don’t always think the proof of the pudding is in the reading. I’ve got some beautiful volumes that I will probably never read. Do I really want to read all the books of Sir Walter Scott or von Krafft-Ebing? I just like owning them.
Not reading something also can be like saving a piece of pie for later. I’ve comforted myself by thinking that when I have a chronic and fatal illness, I’ll finally settle down and read the last five volumes of Proust. Or finish The Magic Mountain (which has a great start and then goes on and on). I’m really looking forward to reading The Man Without Qualities at some unspecified time in the future, preferably at the beach or in the mountains.
It’s the guilt and fear of not being well read, of having missed out on reading a work that everyone else has read that makes us shy about admitting our nonreading. Remember back when everyone was reading the same book at the same time — in my case it was The Alexandria Quartet, The Hobbit, The Greening of America, Amerika, or anything by Herman Hesse — and you weren’t? You felt so out of it, and then it was just too late. David Lodge has brilliantly captured that embarrassment in his novel Changing Places (which I’ve read … have you?), in which academics play a parlor game called Humiliation. In this game you have to admit to not having read a book that you think everyone else in the room has read. When a character admits to never having read Hamlet, he ends up garnering the scorn of all and eventually loses his job.
Perhaps we need a little less guilt and one-upmanship in this enterprise of reading. Let’s openly acknowledge that there are a library of ways to read, and that, being humans, we are somewhat prone to forgetting, imagining, delaying, and even not doing. If we were a little more open and honest about what we haven’t read, and if our colleagues were a little less judgmental and sanctimonious, we might loosen the harness of guilt that holds us back from actually picking up some book we’ve forsaken in the past. Who knows? Admitting that we don’t read might actually help us to read again.
By Lennard J. Davis, who actually reads most of what he teaches, is a professor of English, disability and human development, and medical education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
© The Chronicle Review