Sunday, April 27, 2008

Field Guide to Non-Reading

I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.-- Oscar Wilde

I drifted on to other things before finishing one of the funniest books I’ve encountered recently, but its author, Pierre Bayard, would probably understand. He wrote How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read because, as a literature professor, he so often confronts embarrassing social situations requiring him to express opinions on poetry or prose he hasn't read, or at least hasn't read thorougly. A generalist and a professional, Bayard’s expected to master vast bodies of work, but even an amateur niche reader like me can feel overwhelmed by the astonishing pace of the publishing industry. As Bayard puts it, "We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitessimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read." So I was delighted to find a book detailing strategies for chatting up, debating, or pillorying works you’ve never cracked open.

My favorite part, as far as I can remember, was the section elucidating various categories, or really degrees, of reading books—from works you’ve never heard of to volumes you loved, perhaps rereading often, but so long ago you cannot recall any details. “Our relation to books is a shadowy space,” says Bayard, “haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.” Shame over spotty memories or omitted classics leads people to lie about their reading choices or their experiences of certain titles or authors, distorting our relations with each other as well as our relations with books. Yet in a world where non-reading is the norm, the community of readers should celebrate, rather than dissemble about, our imperfect attempts at literary competence. As my small contribution to that effort, I’m offering a self-quiz, to help you assess your ambiguous relations with a few great nature books.

• The End of Nature
• Log from the Sea of Cortez
• The Thunder Tree
• Under the Sea-Wind
• A Sand County Almanac
• Death Comes for the Archbishop
• Walden
• Mind on Fire
• The Voyage of the Beagle
• High Tide in Tucson
• My First Summer in the Sierra
• Sick of Nature

(a) Never heard of it
(b) Read so long ago that you can’t recall subject or author
(c) Argued strongly for/against, then realized you were thinking of another book
(d) Are sick of hearing its praises and have no intention of reading
(e) Skimmed for class but not well enough, based on test results
(f) Read and recall vividly
(g) Loved so much you recommended it in a blog comment

Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Dave Coulter said...

A-ha. I love quizzes but I didn't do so hot on yours, lol. This is exactly why we need your blog!

• The End of Nature (d)
• Log from the Sea of Cortez (a)
• The Thunder Tree (a)
• Under the Sea-Wind (a)
• A Sand County Almanac (e) and (g) ironically!
• Death Comes for the Archbishop (a)
• Walden (b)
• Mind on Fire (a)
• The Voyage of the Beagle (d)
• High Tide in Tucson (a)
• My First Summer in the Sierra (d)
• Sick of Nature (a)

Grant McCreary said...

• The End of Nature - heard of it, no great hurry to read
• Log from the Sea of Cortez - a
• The Thunder Tree - a
• Under the Sea-Wind - a
• A Sand County Almanac - reading it at the moment
• Death Comes for the Archbishop - a
• Walden - it was 'd', until I read The Life of the Skies. Now I might read eventually
• Mind on Fire - a
• The Voyage of the Beagle - maybe
• High Tide in Tucson - a
• My First Summer in the Sierra - probably will read
• Sick of Nature - a

My big confession is that I've never read Sand County Almanac until I just started it.
You've intrigued me about How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read. I'll have to check it out.

pinenut said...

I'm so delighted that you guys took the quiz and gave us your results. Obviously, I've heard of all the books I listed, but I haven't read Log from the Sea of Cortez yet. The rest of mine are (e), with a couple of (g)s too.

One of you should put up a list of your favorite books and see how I do on the quiz.

And I have to defend Voyage of the Beagle. It has some draggy bits, I guess, but is too fascinating and important to let all the talk about it discourage you.

Keep us us posted, Grant, about what you think about A Sand County Almanac.

Dave Coulter said...


Your nature book quiz is a great idea. I may take you up on that! I'd love to someday read about the Beagle, as there was an awesome exhibit here about Darwin recently! :)

Dave Coulter said...

You asked for it! :)

Grant McCreary said...

I just finished A Sand County Almanac. It was great, and absolutely lived up to its hype.

Texas Travelers said...

How did you like My First Summer in the sierra?
I am currently reading South to the Amazon - East to Africa.

Your post is a real wake-up call.

Thanks for sharing this,