Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Even further considerations on Reading and not reading

When writing about How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (see below), I intended to tell you about the major English writer whose works I have managed to not-read, with great success, over several decades. Not that this not-reading has in any way restrained me from commenting on the writer and all their works — of which it might be fair to say I have not-read in their entirety.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I have read the opening sentence of one novel. Then again, it depends what you mean by read. I know for certain I’ve heard it spoken and I do, I think, remember seeing it over someone’s shoulder. Perhaps I also checked it in a dictionary of quotations when I wanted to play with it in my own writing.

I did, however, possess a copy of one of the other novels for a while. I’ve no idea why. I may have bought it — unlikely. I may have stolen it — if so it must have been in error. I certainly never intended to read it. I didn’t even think much of the painting on the cover. If I’m entirely honest — well, as honest as I can try to be, given the circumstances — I may actually have skimmed the introduction. May have.

Nonetheless, I am completely confident that I have a pretty accurate, balanced and nuanced view of both the author and their books’ status, relevance, strengths, weaknesses and historical significance — perhaps better than some who’ve actually read them all cover-to-cover. How, I hear you think, can I possibly say that? For three reasons.

One, I’ve seen the films and TV shows etc. So I know all the plots, themes, characters etc.

Two, I’ve read other books (and seen other movies and TV shows) from the same era. I know the history — some of it anyway. I know what time dinner was served then, in which order courses were served and where the chairs were placed. I’ve read EP Thompson’s The Making Of The English Working Class. I’ve seen Sharpe on TV — even if my most striking memories of it are that Sean Bean’s uniform was green, that his sidekick had an Irish accent and that one show featured Elizabeth Hurley’s breasts.

Three, perhaps most importantly, I’ve heard lots of interesting, different people make interesting, different comments on all interesting, different elements and views of the author and all their works. Some of them may even have read some or more of the books themselves — not that I have any way of knowing whether this is so. By listening to these other apparently well-informed people, though, I stopped myself being blinded by my own knowledge — a much harder thing to do if you’ve actually read the books.

I have incorporated all this author’s books into what Bayard calls my virtual library. I just haven’t actually had them stamped out. Accordingly, I see no reason why I, as a non-reader of those books, shouldn’t be as free to comment on them as those who have merely read them.

Perhaps freer, says Bayard. He sees books’ true worth as repositories for projections of bits of ourselves, our histories, our thoughts, our feelings — and what we learn from considering those projections. ‘It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the “actual” book — even if it sometimes provides us momentum — and it is the writing of self that we must pursue without swerving.’

And again: ‘In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves.’

PS As I said at the start, I intended to tell you honestly about my non-reading of this major English writer. I was going to tell you their name. Then, quite casually, in the course of telling my wife about Bayard’s book (long before I’d finished it, of course), I happened to mention the extent of my non-reading of this particular author. She was shocked, into silence. The extent of her shock indicated to me that I should follow her lead and retreat into silence. So, I’m afraid, I can’t tell you who it is I’ve not-read with such attentive inattentiveness over such a long period.

I was, I must say, though, stunned by her silence. Obviously, she thought: this man is a liar, what other lies has he told me over the years? But there must have been more to it than simply that, surely.

I couldn’t work it out. I can’t work it out. I’ll have to think about it. Let me get back to you.