Category Archives: literary criticism

Tonguecat by Peter Verhelst

TonguecatTonguecat by Peter Verhelst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admire this book more than I like it. That is, I understand that Verhelst is pulling off a kind of writerly virtuosity and I applaud appropriately. But I feel about it like I feel about a good bit of contemporary music that appeals to the musical theorist rather than the musical ear. It’s possible to feel intellectually compelled, but viscerally unmoved; that’s kind of where I end up with Verhelst and his cast of characters. The book recounts fantastical and horrific events in the aftermath of the apocalyptic end of an empire, but the books surfaces are icy, a little like the frigid ice age that descends on the countryside as a major event of the novel. The characters are frozen and statuesque, a little like the frozen corpses that litter the landscape. They remain untouchable, and so untouched and untouching. As a result, Verhlest’s story works like an allegory, but one from which I remain mostly removed and uncaring. I’m not sorry I read the book, but why go back. Given that the book is at least in part about terror, terrorism, empire, and totalitarianism, I’m not sure this is a great way to feel

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In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Reading and Redemption

I saw Atonement last night, the Oscar-nominated film based on Ian McEwan’s award winning novel. I’m kind of vaguely interested in what happens to novels when they become films, but more so in films and novels that are in some way about the process of reading and writing. I have no idea about McEwan’s novel itself—I hope I can get to it someday—but I found the conceptual interaction between visual and textual storytelling—between viewing and reading—very layered and complex in the film. To some degree compelling, but also troubling.

Because I get to these things about three weeks after everyone’s seen the film, I’m going to assume whoever reads this post has already watched the movie (fair warning if you think the ending is given away). The interplay between reading/viewing and writing/performing is there throughout the film, of course. The main character, Briony, is a budding novelist of 13 whose urgent hormone-driven plays are transparently presented as sublimated efforts to deal with her adolescent crush on a older young man, Robbie, who is in love with her older sister, Cecilia. This love of a young girl for an older man is perversely reversed when another young man about the age of Robbie rapes her young friend.

Briony has seen the rape, but using her well-practiced imagination, and perhaps revenging herself on Robbie for loving her sister instead of her, accuses Robbie of the deed. Briony’s decision to fabricate Robbie’s role is caught in the following clip. Too bad it doesn’t start just a bit earlier, where we see the two girls building a story based on their own fears, needs, and class stereotypes.

“Atonement” is, of course, about whether or not one can atone for the past. Can the past be repaired? Even to some degree, does Briony need to atone for the past? Can a young girl of 13 be held responsible for an act, however reprehensible, that can readily be understood as an act of immaturity rather than an act of adult malice? Even, can any action by a much older and much changed Briony count in any way for atonement of sins by the younger child she resembles but in no way repeats. Are our older selves, in so many ways discontinuous with the children that we were, even capable of repenting for sins that were in some very real sense committed by someone else? This distance is registered in the film by having actresses who are similar in appearance—at least in, implausibly, retaining the same haircut for approximately 60 years—but who are otherwise obviously very different people “playing” the same person. Again, this question of atonement is perversely registered in that the actual adult rapist “atones” for the past by eventually marrying the young girl he raped when she comes of age. While the true agent of brutality goes on to live out the Western mythology of human fulfillment in marriage, Robbie and Cecilia are forever separated by the sins of someone else.

For my purposes I’m interested in the layered question of whether writing and reading—whether an act of and engagement with the imagination—can atone for sins committed in the world. How does the imagination act on the world? This is most pronounced in the conclusion of the film where we cut to a latter-day television interview with an elderly and ill Briony, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has just written her final novel, final because she has realized that she has incurable and progressive dementia that is gradually destroying her ability to remember and to use language.

We immediately understand as viewers that the movie we have just been watching is this last novel—rendered visually. We have been the reader/viewers of the novel, which is supposedly autobiographical. However Briony/Vanessa Redgrave informs us that the story didn’t really end as she left it in the scenes we had just seen. Robbie did not return from Europe to be with Cecilia. He died on the beaches of Dunkirk from sepsis. Briony is never reconciled to Cecilia—as the film had just made it appear. Instead, Briony had been too cowardly to find her sister and make the attempt at reconciliation. Cecilia character died in the bombing of London, living alone and estranged from her family because she had refused to believe that Robbie was a rapist and had refused to renounce her love for him.

The elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony explains her decision to give the novel/movie a happy ending for two reasons—readers could not accept the reality, and because the imagined ending was an act of repair, giving Robbie and Cecilia a life of joy together—symbolized by life on Dover Beach—that had eluded them because of Briony’s deception.

The two reasons, I think, work in very different direction, and finally don’t completely hold together. I’m not completely taken with the notion of readers needing the happy ending. It’s true, of course, that Hollywood films and any number of romance novels make their way in the world on the hunger for uncomplicated fantasy. But is it the case that human beings are so unused to the idea that the innocent die while the guilty go free and live happily ever after that we refuse it in our literature? Indeed, isn’t it our literature that teaches us this repeatedly. It feeds the generally tragic sense of reader-geeks that their own nobility is tragically unrecognized in the world at large. It is played out by English professors who grump that their C students get jobs right out of college that pay more than they make as tenured professors.

Still, this notion does comport with the general tenor of the film. Briony’s sin is first and foremost an act of the imagination. She “sees” what she wants to see so that it will reflect her own story in the world. Her refusal to allow the world to be more complicated that her own seeing is the source of her original accusation. In a very real sense, Briony’s imagination is what she must atone for. Imagination is her original sin—her writing is, after all, a particular way of reading the world that refuses to let the world be what it is truthfully. Her imagination is a thirteen-year-old act of violence on the world, and results in very real violence to many people down the line.

And so, can we really buy the elder Vanessa Redgrave/Briony’s assertion that she is somehow redeeming the lives of Cecilia and Robbie, giving them what they couldn’t otherwise have in reality? Something she wants to understand as an act of generosity and even love. I’m not sure. To some degree this could be connected with the work of someone like Ernst Bloch who insisted that the utopian function of art was to say “And Yet” to life, to insist that “reality” did not have the final say if that final say was understood to be beyond the act of human agency, human shaping, human imagination. In the same fashion, if atonement is possible, it seems to me that atonement must be an act that includes the imagination.

Still, is this an act that the imagination can carry out in reference to our own actions in the past? No human action is every finished in and of itself. Rather, it is read and reread, and its meaning accrues and changes by the means and contexts through which it is reread. I sometimes tell students I prefer to understand God as a reader than a writer. Redemption is an act of reading and discovering the possibilities in a life-text that could not have been imagined by those individuals and other historical agents who brought that life-text into being in the first place. But I guess what makes me leery of this particular act is Briony’s act of self-justifying imagination. Can Briony atone for the failures of her imagination by another act of the imagination that further falsifies the lives of those that she has damaged, however “innocently” or unknowingly? I tend to think that this isn’t atonement but self-justification.

On the other hand, what we finally get from Briony-Vanessa Redgrave is not imagination as atonement, but a very different secularized Christian practice—Confession. Briony apparently tells the truth to the reader at the end of the story, and the reader/viewer is the only person in the position to forgive. Briony’s confession of what actually happened is, at least putatively, something that removes her own imagination as an agent in her own redemption. She no longer writes someone different from who she is, but says who she is and what she has done and failed to do, and what the consequences have been. The production of art that moves a reader is no compensation for the evil that produces it. But the frank confession of the truth is a work of art in which we recognize ourselves. We forgive her because we see in her all the unthinking dishonesties by which we have harmed others and ourselves. In her need for us, we recognize our own need for forgiving readers.

Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.

Reading as Mapping: Or, Who are the Well-Read? And Does Anyone Really Care?

My son is a seventh grader who plays up a grade on an eighth grade basketball team. They make the Bad News Bears look talented. I was talking with a friend whose daughter plays on a high school team that’s also been struggling, and I asked him if it was as bad as our eighth graders. “Worse,” he said, “because at least there’s hope.”

How true. With absolutely low expectations and little hope of victory, we can be thrilled when the eighth grade boys manage to keep the game within 30 points. By contrast, our boys’ high school basketball team has lost a dozen games by less than five points, and the girls’ team has played well below expectations, their dismal records depressing by virtue of what might have been.

I feel a little bit the same way about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.Despite my disparagement of Bayard in yesterday’s post, it’s fair to say that Bayard has 15 pages of very provocative insights. But his tendency to extend them to absurd extremes, to make mind-bending leaps of illogic without sufficient evidence, and his willingness to bury those insights beneath pages of mind-numbingly dull and uninventive reading—to say nothing of his generally flippant tone—leads me to dislike the book all the more despite the important things it might have to say. What might have been, I want to say. What might have been.

For me, Bayard raises the question of what we must mean when we imagine being well read—a class of persons that seems increasingly rarified and relatively unimportant, but which bears a residual level of cultural respect, if not capital, in any case. In America, the Well-Read are something like the British Royal family: ceremonial but without any real power.

Bayard points out that given the tens, the hundreds, of thousands of books that we could possibly imagine being worth reading, there is some literal sense in which all of us will have always read almost nothing at all. He tells the story from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities wherein the hero walks through a library of 3 and a half million books and realized that, were he to read a book a day, he would have to live ten thousand years to read them all. I am reminded of my favorite professor in college, Joe McClatchey, whom we saw walking across campus one day, a troubled look on his face. Asked what was wrong, he said with some intense sadness that he had just realized how many great books there were that he would never have the chance to read.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s dictum for Christians that in comparison to the love and wisdom of God, Christians must begin each day realizing they are starting over as infants. None of us is ever really well-read in this quantitative sense, and so being well-read means something other than or different than “reading everything” or even “reading a lot.” It has nothing, in fact, to do with an amount of reading whatsoever.

The traditional canonical arguments would suggest that it means reading “the best” that has been thought and written, while canonical revisionists would, of course, seek to change or alter what is contained on this list of “bests,” or else challenge and change what is meant by “best.” I am unimpressed by this quest for the right list of “bests”; even were we to agree on what the category entails, it seems to me there are too many very good books out there to read, even in the relatively narrow field defined problematically as “literature”–leave alone philosophy, history, theology, social theory, and etcetera–for us to ever imagine something like a comprehensive literacy.

Bayard takes things in an intriguingly different direction. Being well read is not a matter of what you read at all. Being well read is not a matter of assimilating a particular number of titles. Indeed, for Bayard, being well read has nothing to do with reading particular books at all. Instead, being well read is a function of understanding the relationships between books, an understanding that, once mastered, allows someone to place books with only the most cursory understanding of their contents.

To some degree with is a literacy of location—thus the title of this blog, reading as mapping. To read a single book is a little like examining the details of a single city block. I could read a hundred different titles on a great books list, but if I am only wrapped up in the reading of individual texts, what I will come away with is an intimate knowledge of 100 different city blocks.

For Bayard, by contrast, being well-read is not achieved through the intimate, rigorous, and close reading of discrete texts, but through understanding the map of texts, the way texts and their properties fit together, cohere, differ, contrast. As Bayard puts it:

“As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

“It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn’t read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject” (10-11)

Before questioning this, I want to affirm how very true it really is, and how important it might be for thinking through what we might mean by cultural literacy. I am often poignantly struck by students who come to me for a list of books they ought to read. I always tell them, read authors they like, and then read what those writers liked, and then read writers who liked those writers. I’m not quite saying the same thing as Bayard, but I am trying to suggest to students that reading a particular list of books is not going to be that helpful.

I think Bayard pushes me a little further here in making me see that I’m also trying to get students in to some kind of system of relationship between texts. Who influences whom, and why does it matter. This is one way of mapping—probably not a very good one. What professors know that students do not are not just individual texts. What professors know is how to read the maps of texts that students don’t even really comprehend exist. The championing of “native knowledges” and reading preferences of students as is common in some pedagogies is of limited use if we don’t see that we are leaving students impotent in understanding how maps of reading work in culture. How can they map their own preferences on to the map of literature—or, how can they challenge whatever maps currently exist.

In a particular sense it seems to me that what Bayard is doing is applying the insights of structural linguistics to the world of books. Imagine each book as a word. Understanding the word by itself is not important, and indeed, if a person only knew one word we justifiably and correctly call such a person an idiot (clinical definition, a person who can do only one thing or speak to only himself—kind of like writing this blog).

However, the structural linguists rightly point out that the meaning of any word is only functional within the entire system of words, and that it is important to understand the shape of that system, that discourse, in some ways more important to understand that than to understand discrete words themselves—a logical impossibility in the thinking of structural linguists since there is no word “in itself”. To apply a Wittgensteinian take on this rather than a structural linguistic take, we rightly note that the meaning of a word is in its use. We can often determine or broadly guess the meaning of a particular word we have never heard before by hearing the word in use, in a particular context. And in any case we come to understand a word not by getting definitions but by learning how the word is put in to use in the systems of language.

Bayard is saying something very similar about what it means to be culturally literate. Cultural literacy is not the grasping of lists of facts or texts—as E.D. Hirsch or Allan Bloom would have had it back in the 80s. Literacy is understanding how the system of books work so that, even when we have not read a particular book, we can determine without too much trouble its general place in the system of books as a whole.

On the whole, I think Bayard underplays the significance of reading particular texts, and the particular kind of sophistication that come through these local knowledges. Bayard’s assertions that it is more important to know the map than to have visited the locations on the map, bears a certain truth. But it’s not clear that a person who reads a map, but who has never seen a mountain or who has never walked through a city block, or who has never viewed the sea, can properly be said to understand a map at all.

Imagine a person who grows up in a closed room and is taught only to read maps, and he becomes thoroughly familiar with maps and the relationships between them. It’s not clear, however, that such a person can really read a map if, when taken out of his room, he cannot recognize a city street. Instead the person is merely reading hieroglyphics without any sense of the relationship of those hieroglyphics to the cultural life in which they are embedded. In other words, a certain level of extended close reading is necessary for the reading of book maps to make any sense at all. Reading of individual books is necessary to the possibility of reading maps in a way we simply take for granted. On the other hand, this having been said, it’s not clear we can really understand our own geography in the fullest ways possible, without understanding the ways that geography is related to other geographies.

In other words, we need to both read the maps and walk the streets. The relationship between the two elements is far more dynamic and interactive than Bayard seems to allow. The knowledge of individual books is only coherent by understanding how to map the book to a particular bookish geography. However, maps only make sense to us at all if we have some knowledge and understanding about at least some, and preferably many, individual books. We can only understand relationship through understanding things being related. Relationship itself, as Kierkegaard well understood, is the most abstract and insubstantial—yet unavoidable and necessary—of philosophical concepts. To get at the ways in which books relate, we have to grasp at least some things of book themselves.

Many more things to say here, but I think I’m going to stop for the night. Two main things on my mind. One, I think the multi-ethnic canon wars have often been fought over lists, and have thus been only marginally effective in challenging the most important thing: the way books are mapped. While we read a few new books, we mostly haven’t changed our understanding of how books relate to each other. We haven’t changed the map; we’ve just added heretofore-unacknowledged trees and rocky outcroppings, while leaving the basic contours of the geographic spaces of literature untouched. Second, and it might be related, but I’m not sure. I think we still do a better job of communicating to undergraduates the importance of the close reading of discrete texts than we do the importance of relationship between texts. Students come away with a strong sense of reading, but not a strong sense of how to map books in their experience.

Pierre Bayard, Guiltless: Or, Why do French Intellectuals Sound Like Clever American Adolescents?

I’ve finally finished reading Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and thought I’d talk about it, perhaps for the next couple of days as I think through it.

The first thing to say is that every element of the sentence I just wrote is nonsensical in Bayard’s understanding of reading.

First, one can never really claim to having finished reading a book since, in fact, we don’t actually read books in the first place, though we sometimes fool ourselves into believing that we do. Bayard goes to great lengths to point out that every act of reading is foremost and always an act of forgetting; even as we turn the page—indeed, even as we leave one sentence behind for another—we engage in a gradual process of forgetting most of the details of what we have read. What we retain is not so much the book as an image of the book that corresponds to our general sense of books as such, of the vast panoply of possible and actual books in their real and imagined relations. Every book we have read is, in some fashion, an act and creation of the imagination. We, therefore do not really finish books so much as we use books to engage with this great library of the imagination that lurks within.

Second, and following on the first thesis, I could not really claim to have read Pierre Bayard’s book since in Bayard’s conception we do not really read things that are exterior to ourselves, and we fall in to desperate traps when we let books lead us into thinking that we do. He is much taken in the beginning and end of his book by Oscar Wilde’s great essays “To read, or not to read” and the seminal “The Critic as Artist”–essays that Bayard seems, against the implications of his own theory, to have read closely and been affected by deeply. For Wilde, of course, criticism is not so much a secondary act of reading a prior text as it is an independent creation more on the order of autobiography. (Side note: Bayard would be much intrigued by my use of the phrase “of course” in the sentence just finished) Thus, in spinning out these musings on Bayard, I am in fact engaging more properly and obviously in an extended act of autobiography than in any actual reading of Bayard in and of himself. To some degree this is Roland Barthes lite, especially in his essay “The Death of the Author” wherein Barthes champions reading not as an engagement with the prior authority of an author but an act of creation that celebrates the creative capacities of readers.

Third, and following on this second point, I could not really be talking about Bayard’s book, though, of course, I may fool myself into believing that I am Instead, we are always only talking about books we haven’t read. Much in the spirit of Stanley Fish’s discussion of free speech—There’s no such thing as free speech, and it’s a good thing too—we hear Bayard saying. There’s no such thing as reading books, and it’s a good thing too.

Finally, if all this is true, I cannot really be thinking through Bayard’s book since I will mostly, in fact, be thinking through the activity of my own imagination in the first place.

[A pic of Pierre Bayard looking like an insouciant American teenager. No, wait, it’s a photo Pierre Bayardof an American teenager attempting to look like an insouciant French intellectual. No, wait, Bayard attempting to reflect the idealized image American adolescents have of French intellectuals. No, wait….]

There’s a lot to say about Bayard’s book—or rather about the play of my own imagination—and I hope to get to a few of them over the next day or two. But the first thing I want to note is that though this book has been a splash in the United States, it is a thoroughly French book. In saying this, I am exercising one of Bayard’s dicta that understanding the place of a book within the universe of books is more important than reading it. Be that as it may, it seems to me that this book is more important for the French than it is for Americans, but if this is so, how should we account for its popularity, or at least its press, in the United States.

First, what do I mean by the statement that it is a thoroughly French book? Witness Bayard speaking somewhat self-indulgently of his own courageousness in facing down constraints against admitting the real character of our reading.

“The first of these constraints might be called the obligation to read. We still live in a society, on the decline though it may be, where reading remains the object of a kind of worship. This worship applies particularly to a number of canonical texts—the list varies according to the circles you move in—which it is practically forbidden not to have read if you want to be taken seriously.

“The second constraint, similar to the first but nonetheless distinct, might be called the obligation to read thoroughly. If it’s frowned upon not to read, it’s almost as bad to read quickly or to skim, and especially to say so. For example, it’s virtually unthinkable for literary intellectuals to acknowledge that they have flipped through Proust’s work without having read it in its entirety—though this is certainly the case for most of them.

“The third constraint concerns the way we discuss books. There is a tacit understanding in our culture that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision. In my experience, however, it’s totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven’t read—including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn’t read it either. ” (xiv-xv)

It’s possible, of course, to imagine certain narrow circles in the United States where people still feel the obligation to have read, and especially to have read certain texts. However, this surely reflects the educated classes of France far more than the U.S., places where literature still really bears a distinct form of cultural capital. But can that be said of any but the narrowest intellectual circles in the United States? With no apparent compunction, Steve Jobs dismissed the idea of developing an e-book reader, simply on the basis that it is a bad business model. No one reads in the United States anymore, so why bother. This hardly sounds like a man worried about the fact that reading is still worshipped in his culture of reference.

Even with academic circles in the United States, the fragmentation of cultural knowledges means that academics simply accept the fact that they will read a great deal that no one else around them will have read. And the increasingly arcane specialization of literary studies means that even those texts we abstractly share as “Must Reads”–say something from Shakespeare–are hardly shared as forms of cultural capital. My having read Hamlet gets me no points with my colleague who is an expert in Shakespeare—so what, he says, have you read the latest biography theorizing the importance of Shakespeare’s lesbian grandmother? My having read or not read Hamlet gives me no cultural capital with my fellow specialists in African American literature. Haven’t read Hamlet? Good riddance. Americans live in a country where presidents glory in their non-reading and have no shame in their literary ignorance. Indeed, such ignorance can be a badge of honor. The crisis of guilt Bayard pretends to address could only be a foreign crisis of little interest to the actual scene of reading in the United States.

This having been disposed of, the inconsequence of Bayard’s second and third constraints on the American scene must be quite clear. In the United States, we are generally pleased if people read at all, so we could hardly care if they read thoroughly—except for the short and inconsequential spaces of time that students spend within English classes. (Even here, I find most English profs are simply relieved if their students have read the texts at all, much less whether they have read them thoroughly) Finally, of course, we don’t generally talk about books anyway except in very narrow circles that have cult-like characteristics, with the fortunate bonus that they are easily escaped. If I get tired of my book-loving pals in the United States, I can go….well….almost anywhere to find people who think that booklovers are a bit queer, in both the old and new senses of the word.  The guilt that Bayard hopes to rid us of is, in the United States, hard to find.

Why then his book’s splash in all the reviews? I think in part this is because the reviews are the last places in America where people seem to care whether Americans read or not, and where what you have read has some consequence. So Bayard is speaking to that increasingly narrow segment of the American population that bothers to read book reviews of academic books and thinks they are worth thinking about. Secondly, however, the book comes just at that moment when we have had an uptick in media concern with the status of reading generally. While Bayard is attempting to unmask the hidden practices of reading in France where reading continues to carry the force of cultural capital, in the United States he speaks not to our guilt but to our self-affirmation. Oh, we’re not really reading books at all even when we are reading them. Good thing I wasn’t pretending in the first place.

Whereas Bayard’s book functions to unmask an ideology of reading in France, it mostly reaffirms the practice of most 18 year olds in general education literature courses. Haven’t read the book. No problem. Read Spark Notes and bullshit your way through. Bullshitting as a valuable adolescent form of creative self-display.

More later, but first a confession. I haven’t really finished Bayard’s book. I have ten pages to go. I’m wondering why I didn’t follow his advice in the first place.

Fish Redux

A response of mine to Fish’s latest arguments about the Humanities was posted today in the comments section of the Times at Fish’s blog. I think I’m going to write my parents and tell them I’ve now been published in the New York Times! However, they think it’s a liberal rag. I doubt they will mention it to their friends at church. (Side note:  What exactly is a liberal rag in digital world–liberal pixels?  liberal electrons?  Maybe an e-rag.  I like it.)
My comment ran as follows:

I wonder whether the refutation of Dr. Fish’s position lies within the framework of his own argument, at least insofar as English studies is concerned. He begins with a marvelous disquisition on the way language works and means–or does not mean what we think it means–in Herbert’s poem. He ends by saying “I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s ‘Matins’) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’”

The rhetorical shape of his argument–to say nothing of its length–makes us conflate these two moments, and we find ourselves agreeing with him when he says, “I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”

However, these are two very different moments of response, two very different pleasures, we might say. In the final instance, who, after all, would pay for us to say to one another “Gee whiz, isn’t literature grand.” The first instance, however, is an exemplary instance of close reading learned through a substantial amount of reading,training, and practice (in both reading and writing). Fish’s close reading points to the particular role that literary studies can play–though it often fails to play–in understanding the nature, history and possibilities of written language.

If I am right about this, a rationale for this kind of study lies not in Fish’s aesthetic wonderment, but in rhetoric and philology. Surely the way written language works in the world deserves the kind of careful scrutiny we give to bacteria and to economics. We don’t need to think of the utility of this kind of study in immediate terms. The study of pure science or mathematics, for instance, proceeds without any clear sense of it’s immediate utility, and students are required to study chemistry even when the day to day practice of their lives rarely requires it’s application.

Similary, we might say the careful study of how written language works need not be justified by it’s immediate application, but by a general sense that it is better to have human beings in the modern world educated in the ways language has functioned and can function and may function. A related gesture would be to return to a recognition that the study of literature can exist in part to create better writers–something that most English departments these days choose to see as beneath the seriousness of their enterprise. However, undergraduates that have understood the textual dimensions of complex, dense, and difficult texts may be in a better position to apply that understanding to their own writing in the future.

This might be a pleasure worth paying for.