By­pass this book, for a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Oak­ley

IN the years when I was lit­er­ary ed­i­tor of this news­pa­per I de­vel­oped some skill in an art only now given full at­ten­tion, by the French aca­demic Pierre Ba­yard. It is as­sumed that a lit­er­ary ed­i­tor would keep up with the latest in books. But in the 10 years I was in the job I never read less or skimmed more. There were sim­ply too many: the car­tons never stopped thump­ing on to my desk.

So I bluffed. I bluffed at din­ner par­ties, at con­fer­ences, and at lit­er­ary lunches, where it was my task to in­tro­duce celebrity guests to large crowds of gen­uine read­ers. For ex­am­ple, I tried, but was un­able to read, Ken Fol­lett, whom I in­tro­duced glow­ingly. Grad­u­ally a prin­ci­ple emerged. The more suc­cess­ful the writer, the worse the prose.

I tried, but again failed, with Sid­ney Shel­don, fight­ing my way through chap­ters of cliches be­fore giv­ing up. Though my in­tro­duc­tion was again en­thu­si­as­tic, he didn’t look happy as he made his way to the lectern, and af­ter his speech he glared at me: ‘‘ You took that off the press re­lease.’’ ‘‘ Not en­tirely.’’ ‘‘ OK then, how does it fin­ish?’’ ‘‘ Well,’’ I said. ‘‘ Very well, in­deed.’’

For the fraud, the fib­ber and the phony, help is at hand. Only a French­man schooled in the mys­ter­ies of post- struc­tural­ism and de­con­struc­tion could in­sist there’s no clear line be­tween read­ing and non- read­ing. Non- read­ing, Ba­yard ar­gues, is in fact a richer field than its op­po­site, cov­er­ing books that one has skimmed, heard about or sim­ply forgotten.

Read­ing, the au­thor claims, is a sus­pect no­tion. Given the num­ber of works in ex­is­tence, a choice must be made be­tween the in­di­vid­ual book and the over­all view of books. Rather than any par­tic­u­lar work, it is the con­nec­tions be­tween them that should be the fo­cus of the cul­ti­vated per­son: ‘‘ Re­la­tions be­tween ideas are far more im­por­tant than the ideas them­selves.’’

By now it will have dawned on even the slow­est an­glo­phone reader that Ba­yard is a satirist, and an el­e­gant one, in the tra­di­tion of Pas­cal and Voltaire. And now that his ad­vice has been fol­lowed and the au­thor lo­cated along the line of The Pro­vin­cial Let­ters and Can­dide , we have his per­mis­sion to read no fur­ther.

But I pressed on, ea­ger for more ar­gu­ment against ac­tu­ally read­ing a book. Even the most thor­ough read­ings, he goes on to say, shrink into sum­mary soon af­ter­wards, and even­tu­ally this too dis­ap­pears. From its first mo­ments, read­ing en­tails a process of for­get­ting. Be­low the ap­par­ently con­fi­dent ded­i­cated reader there’s an un­cer­tain fig­ure, ‘‘ lost among frag­ments of texts he can barely iden­tify’’.

More: th­ese frag­ments

com­bine

with

our fan­tasies to make up parts of our own private in­ner- book, which we’re al­ways seek­ing to com­plete, and against which we judge what books we do read. This is why we so rarely agree with an­other reader of the same book. She’s judg­ing it against her in­ner- book, just as we are against ours. Bet­ter to dis­cuss books nei­ther has read, when we’re on surer ground.

Ba­yard’s aim ( he is also a psy­chi­a­trist) is to re­lieve the guilt that has hith­erto gone with non­read­ing. He in­sists that, far from be­ing pas­sive, it calls upon all one’s re­serves of cre­ativ­ity when an un­read book is dis­cussed. Since its text is es­sen­tially elu­sive and un­gras­pable, it’s bet­ter to imag­ine rather than read it. The tra­di­tional rev­er­ence for an au­thor is thus re­placed by some­thing far more sat­is­fy­ing and in­ven­tive: one be­comes an au­thor one­self.

It was Roland Barthes and Jac­ques Der­rida who first pro­posed that the writ­ten text has no firm iden­tity, that lan­guage never comes to rest in a stable mean­ing. It has taken a fel­low French­man to take this no­tion to the point of ab­sur­dity, and hold it up to richly de­served ridicule.

But in mock­ing a tire­some the­ory of lan­guage, Ba­yard be­comes tire­some him­self. The ath­letic el­e­gance of his ar­gu­ments is grad­u­ally weighed down by long ex­tracts from au­thors rang­ing from Mon­taigne and Balzac to Um­berto Eco and Gra­ham Greene, some of whom have only an in­di­rect rel­e­vance to Ba­yard’s case.

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is re­ally an es­say padded up into a book: one that, true to its au­thor’s prin­ci­ples, I rec­om­mend you not read, so you can dis­cuss it the bet­ter. Jour­neys, the fifth col­lec­tion of sto­ries edited by Barry Oak­ley for Five Mile Press, is out now.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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