Makin' Bacon

November 7, 2007

Word got around some months ago that a French psychoanalyst had published a guide to talking about books without reading them. After seeing a few blog conversations on this development, news that the volume would be translated into English seemed anticlimactic -- redundant, even.

I have not yet laid eyes on a copy of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury USA), much less read it. Nor does it seem necessary to say another word about the book here. Once you have read one article about it, you’ve read them all, though the recent piece in New York magazine can be recommended for hitting all the basic points with some flair.

The only thing worth adding might be a reminder that David Lodge got there first. In Changing Places, the first of his campus novels, Lodge did Bayard one better by inventing the game “Humiliation.” Rumor has it that Humiliation is sometimes played at faculty dinner parties. I have to doubt this: As with an urban legend, the report always comes from somebody who heard about it from somebody else. But the rules of Humiliation are simple enough, and it’s not impossible that people do occasionally start to play, though things probably don't reach quite the extreme that Lodge describes.

Players of Humiliation take turns naming a classic book they’ve never read. Things get interesting once the element of competition takes over and people try to outdo each other in making confessions. You get credit for being shameless. Admitting that you haven’t read “all” of Proust won’t count for much. But if you never finished the 50-page overture to Remembrance of Things Past, that’s potentially embarrassing. Even more so if you admit you never even tried. And so on, with one-upsmanship being the real driving force. The English professor in Changing Places who admits that he’s never read Hamlet is definitely playing a trump card. (He wins the game, but things turn out badly for him.)

Someone ought to write a different sort of self-help work -- one offering guidance for a situation exactly the opposite of that implied by Bayard’s title. I mean the experience of finding it impossible to talk about things you have read.

This has been happening to me, off and on, for about a year. It's an experience of momentary brain failure that can be quite bewildering and infuriating. I am at present 44 years of age, which may be pertinent. (The nice thing about writing a column is that when a midlife crisis begins, you get to bring along guests.) But a colleague points out that the same condition probably also afflicts people who have to read a lot for graduate school. Whatever the causal factors, here are notes from a case study.

The first incident occurred when, in the course of a discussion of contemporary politics among a few friends, somebody wondered aloud about whether Tony Judt’s Postwar might throw some light on a specific issue. The question ended up being directed my way. I’d read it and even written about it. My marked-up set of galleys for Postwar was on a shelf in the study. The book had dominated my life for at least a week. The question was a general one -- about the argument, not some minute fact from its pages-- but no answer seemed forthcoming. For an agonizing few minutes, the only thing that I could recall was that Postwar had been very long indeed.

Given a short spell with my copy, it would have been easy to find a passage or annotation that applied to the topic at hand. Instead, I just sat there trying to locate the folder in my brain containing whatever ideas and impressions had formed months earlier. But that folder was gone.

Eventually I did find a mental note card’s worth of something to say, and offered to look up more details later. Similar cerebral brownouts have occurred since then, though none was quite so awkward.

Apart from the embarrassment (deer, headlights) the incident was puzzling.

Being able to talk about a book is, among other things, a social skill. It is subject to whatever laws of reputation-economy have inspired Bayard and Lodge. But drawing a total blank on something you know you’ve read involves a different kind of transaction -- one that is intra- rather than inter-personal.

It may be that there are different segments of the self involved in reading. There is one part that actually puts in the time with the book (article, Web site, etc.) and brings together however much power of concentration you have available at a given moment. A different part of you handles the “take away”: whatever substance you extracted from a text. Still another internal functionary is charged with integrating that material into larger patterns of interest -- digesting, rather than chewing, per Francis Bacon.

Finally some other aspect of the self manages all of the rest. It deals with the outside world as well. It is the part that engages in conversation. Also, it knows where to look to find your glasses.

It would be good to think that all of you are on the same team. But sometimes, no, you clearly aren't. Sometimes there is a communication breakdown.

My hunch is that this is especially likely to happen to people who do a great deal of reading that is task-directed rather than autotelic. It is probably also influenced by just how much material gets processed via this division of labor. People who consume two or three books a month, for example, might be less susceptible to moments of total overload than those who read two or three a week.

Some situations require learning to handle texts like a meat packer carving up pigs on an assembly line. Certain skills are involved, and they are good skills to have. You can learn to wield the blade with some precision without losing a finger. But efficiency counts, because there’s always another pig coming at you.

Winning points at a salon or dinner party has its uses, of course. Still, I’d appreciate a guide to how to get through my stint at the packing house in one piece and still be lucid and sociable at the end of the day. If somebody publishes How to Talk About Books You've Actually Read, I will do my best to follow the advice, provided I can remember it.

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