By STACY SCHIFF
The New York Times
February 13, 2007
There are two ways to approach our cultural crossroads. You can either wring your hands and lament — as an eloquent school librarian did recently in The Washington Post — that literacy today has less to do with Wordsworth or Faulkner and more to do with “how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.” Or you can be a sport about it, slip your earbuds back in and pick up a copy of Pierre Bayard’s best-selling “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.”
There is one catch: Professor Bayard writes in French. Of course, that hardly matters as, by definition, you’re not going to crack the spine.
To summarize: Don’t be put off by your ignorance. Let your subconscious do the talking. Remember that text matters less than context. A 52-year-old professor of literature and a psychoanalyst, Mr. Bayard has got this far without ever having picked up “Oliver Twist” or finished “Ulysses.” He remains guilt-free on both counts. In his view, to engage with one book is to forgo the acquaintance of many others. Reword that slightly, and you have the battle cry of half the men I dated.
You could argue that the French have something of a tradition of talking through their hats. And certainly Professor Bayard’s feel-good book counts as recompense. After having been bludgeoned by the unbearable lightness of French women, it’s high time we were consoled by the exemplary liteness of French men. All the same, the technique is familiar. It’s one some of us mastered as undergraduates.
Should Professor Bayard’s measures seem radical, you can meet him halfway: treat yourself to a copy of P. J. O’Rourke’s “On ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ ” among the first in a series on the great books, or, as Mr. O’Rourke terms them, “Works Which Let’s Admit You’ll Never Read the Whole Of.” You can tackle 900 pages of Smith, or you can be tickled by 240 pages of O’Rourke. I agree; it’s no contest. Especially since no one has read Smith in his entirety since 1776, when there was nothing going on anyway.
Also this spring Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the British publisher, will issue “compact” versions of the classics. (Starved though we are for a thin Thackeray in 30 days, we remain fussy about language. “Abridged” is for children. “Compact” is for adults.) Have you not noticed there is too much rambling in “Anna Karenina” and “Mill on the Floss”? And to think I worried about the Monarch Notes people when Wikipedia came along.
Say what you will about Professor Bayard, he forces us to confront a paradox of our age. By one estimate, 27 novels are published every day in America. A new blog is created every second. We would appear to be in the midst of a full-blown epidemic of graphomania. Surely we have never read, or written, so many words a day. Yet increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d’oeuvres of education. We read not in continuous narratives but by linkage, the movable type of the 21st century. Our appetites are gargantuan, our attention spans anorectic. Small wonder trivia is enjoying a renaissance. We are very good on questions like why men fall asleep after sex and why penguins’ feet don’t freeze.
Recently Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines, urged a group of publishing executives to think of their audience as consumers rather than readers. She’s onto something: arguably the very definition of reading has changed. So Google asserts in defending its right to scan copyrighted materials. The process of digitizing books transforms them, the company contends, into something else; our engagement with a text is different when we call it up online. We are no longer reading. We’re searching — a function that conveniently did not exist when the concept of copyright was established.
All of which sent me back to the king of content-free reading, the Ur-blogger. There was to be no tough sledding for this consumer, who never bit his nails over Aristotle. Among distracted readers he has no equal; as disjointed, derivative writers go, he is a man for our times. Five centuries ago he pioneered Mr. Bayard’s reviewing technique: Leave the book under discussion unopened before you. Then write about yourself.
At the outset he warned his reader not to waste his time with the scribblings to follow. Who knows where we go from here. We may well produce another Montaigne.