Friday, 29 February 2008

Further contributions to an understanding of On reading and not reading

I’ve just finished a wonderful book. It’s called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Actually, I haven’t finished it. I’ve only read some of it, plus a review — in the Sunday Times, I think — and perhaps the online blurb at Amazon.*

Which is exactly the point of the book: that most of what we call reading is actually non-reading. We skim. We skip. We forget what we’ve read. What we do remember we often remember quite wrongly. (If I understand right, this is what Freud called nachtraglichkeit and what certain modern psychoanalysts call apres-coup, according to the entry in A Child's Dictionary Of Psychoanalysis anyway.)

Even when we’re reading the same book as someone, we’re actually reading a different book. We all recast what we read (see, hear, eat, etc etc, too) according to the shapes of our minds and inner worlds. When people talk to us about a book we happen to have some recall of, their version of the book rarely accords with our memory. They might as well be talking about a completely different book. Of course, the fact is they are.

How To etc is a lucid and simple book, with a subtle, intricate argument, proposed by Pierre Bayard, a French psychoanalyst with a taste for Mark Twain** and Oscar Wilde.

Along with Louise Bourgeois’ hilariously violent cages and couples, it’s quite restored my faith in French culture. In particular, it introduced me to the wry wit of Paul Valery, a chair of L’Acadamie Francaise. His accession speech seems to have focused on praising his predecessor’s writing while acknowledging that he, Valery, had never read a word of it. In fact, Valery went further, suggesting that this non-reading probably made him the best judge of its worth. He seems to have been right, too.

Accordingly, I have now acquired, in Valery, a new favourite French writer. I have also made a belated new year’s resolution: never to read any more Valery. That might only complicate matters.

* True when written but not now. I finished it about three-quarters of the way through writing this blog. Finishing it did, though, add one significant thought. That if all worthwhile writing is a kind of disguised autobiography, so all creative reading (and non-reading) is, too. By reading (and not-reading), we create and develop our own story, our own self. So reading really is a kind of writing. So, earlier French writers were wrong in asserting the death of the author. We are all authors now, even if only through our creative non-reading (and reading).

** Intending to quote Bayard’s quote of Twain, I looked it up online, for speed. This is what Twain said: ‘I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’

Or rather that is what that source said Twain said. But there was no source given and it wasn’t quite how I remembered it. So I looked it up in the book itself but couldn’t find it. There’s no index so, without reading the whole book again, I can’t be sure if it’s there or not.

Wondering if I’d mixed things up, I looked into another book I was reading, The Stuff Of Thought by Steven Pinker. And there it was. Or rather there another it was. Or perhaps another Mark Twain — Pinker’s Twain as opposed to internet Twain. This is what this Twain said. ‘When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon . . . I will remember [only] the things that never happened.’

Allegedly wrote? Yet the square brackets and the elllipsis in the quote imply a real source. But while Pinker’s previous quote from Twain, just one line earlier, has a numbered reference, this one does not. It is orphaned, cast adrift from its homeland — which might or might not have been in Twain’s brain.

Thus we have a quote I remember from one book which is not in that book but in two other places. One, the notoriously unreliable, slippy world of the internet. One, in another book — where the words surrounding it create insuperable contradictions. It is given the appearance of real, grounded existence — according to the standards of academic quoting. Yet it is denied the standards of academic referencing. It is presented without history: its birth certificate has not just been hidden from the reader, its non-existence has been elided. Its status is deliberately made unclear. Who wrote it? Who knows? Certainly not Pinker. He’s told us as much.

Also, I recall that the author (or rather, the possible author) himself was not the man he said he was, having also separated his identity from his birth certificate, with a pen name which originates in the author’s Mississippi dream life (it indicates two fathoms of water) but also contains an inherent self-unfolding joke. Mark Twain: Write Double.

And the subject matter of Mr Write Double’s quote (or rather of both his quotes) is the vagaries (or vicissitudes, if you want me to come over all Freudian) of memory, of how we create and recreate pasts as the present changes.