Tag Archives: Roland Barthes

Reading Readers: Notes on Alberto Manguel–I

I’ve been reading Alberto Manguel‘s A Reader on Reading.  Some random thoughts:

A Reader On Reading Alberto manguel

x—“Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed:  as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library;  my words and my world—except for a few constant landmarks—are never one and the same.  Heraclitus’s bon mot about time applies equally well to my reading:  “you never dip into the same book twice.””

–In my own experience, a central experience, if not THE central experience through which my tastes, prejudices and memories have changed has been the experience of reading itself.  That is, books, are not infinitely malleable pieces of dough to be made in to what the reader wants them to be at a whim—what seems to be Roland Barthes notion in The Death of the Author. On the other hand, neither do books show the same and constant aspect regardless of time and circumstance.   Rather books are agents of change, shaping me in to something different than what I was before.  I do not say, as might seem logical, that books shape us into the readers they need.  This might follow from something like Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader or the Holland’s theory of the Ideal reader.  I don’t think books have that kind of agency or that authors have that kind of knowingness.  But some books are like mountains that must be scaled, others like fires that must be endured, others streams to be forded.  A book’s agency is found in the kind of action it demands of me, and it’s nature changes for me to the degree that I am changed by the action it affords.  I may by turns and by age turn from the mountain as too daunting, gasp and crawl halfway up its face before giving up in or scale it with the ease of an Olympian.  In every case I am experience the mountain as it is, as it shows its face to me.  It is not that the Olympian truly knows the mountain for what it is, because the climber who scales its height without a second breath cannot see what is there to seen by the man crawling in exhaustion, his breath in the dirt.

x—“I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines.  And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

–I wonder, if it is beyond the author’s intentions and the reader’s hopes,  how is it that books make us wiser?  We cannot say, I think, that the words on the page have a power unto themselves apart from their human utterance and reception.  Manguel ridicules this notion as a form of magical thinking elsewhere in the book.  But what is it then, in the experience of books that makes us wiser?  I agree with the sentiment, but can’t define the agency of such making.  Indeed, it often seems to me that when writers—fiction writers at least—set out to impart wisdom they more often  impart tedium and irritation.  Fiction writers should not be oracles; those who try would be better off becoming essayists or preachers.  Nor am I particular taken by readers who approach books as if they contain wisdom, as if Melville or Faulkner or Morrison were a secondary scripture.  If there is wisdom, it does seem to me that the wisdom might come as an accidental gift of the act of reading itself, not in what is read or who is reading or who is being read.  But at this point I may merely be trying to be oracular.

Freedom and Submission; or, the reading fetishist

One very big advantage of wireless networks. I can sit here and do this blog while I simultaneously watch American Idol. Yes, I am only partially ashamed to admit that I watch American Idol with my family every week. Listening to Simon disrespect singers for their “monumental lack of personality” is my great guilty pleasure.

Probably goes along with my general sense that we are too tenderfooted in declaring that some things are better than other things.

Thus, one way the net has it all over reading books. I mean I couldn’t sit here and read my new edition of War and Peace while listening to several people sing off key while displaying their lack of personality. Multi-tasking rules. (Who am I kidding; I don’t have a new edition of War and Peace or even an old one. I have no time.)

But today’s blog has nothing to do with that.

Ben Vershbow over at if:book posted a very interesting piece reviewing Hypertextopia, a free web space for writers wanting to explore the possibilities of hypertext for fiction. Says Vershbow:


The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems….



Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.



But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext — insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.

Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices — possible pathways though the maze — soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.


Hurrah! And Again. Hurrah. Vershbow has the courage to say that the king has no clothes.

That is, it’s not hip and cool to say, well, frankly, that this is all just a bit dull. But really, it is. It really, really is.

And hypertext fictions are boring in a way that the surfing the internet in general really isn’t. And the way old fashioned books are not. Almost as if the “planned” surprise or randomness or multiplicity of hypertext fictions are more controlling and in some fashion disrespectful of readers than traditional narratives ever were. And less surprising than the almost true randomness of the text or internet.


[Intertext I: Simon Cowell has just determined that the latest singer is “completely forgettable.” She is, she really, really is. Just like almost every hypertext fiction ever written.]

[Intertext II: I have definitely decided that Paula Abdul is irredeemably vapid. Not, I hope, like this post]


Vershbow is right to tie this to a peculiar failure of concept in postmodern views of reading and writing. I have to say that I love reading Roland Barthes. But his understanding of reading in “Death of an Author” completely misses the point of what is most pleasurable and imaginatively enlarging about the reading experience. That is, our self loss, our self-forgetfulness.


I don’t deny the general idea that reading is or can be a creative act. But Barthes tendency to turn every reader into a writer, every reading in to a writing, misses that the great glory of reading is transcendence of the self through loss, transcendence through the dissolution of the ego’s boundary, transcendence through the very submission of the imagination that Barthese hopes to forestall.


As if he were empowering readers by putting them in control. Perhaps he forgets that, as I learned on CSI, the passive partner in an S&M team is always the one who’s really in control, despite appearances.

Finally, equating freedom and creativity with control is….boring. Anyone who has written knows that the most exciting times aren’t those moments when you’re exercising authority over the text, but those when you aren’t. When the words say things you didn’t know or mean.

Reading as control is boring for the same reason hypertext fictions are boring. By giving the reader a job we’re confined by the randomness of our own choices, rather than freed and liberated from ourselves by the prisonhouse of someone else’s language.


Masochism, you say! So be it.

Submit yourselves to the discipline of the text…and be free.

Unless the grain of seed shall die. And so forth.

Fetishists of the text unite!


[Intertext III: Simon thought the last singer was “completely predictable,” but thought Brooke White was great. Paula Abdul says that Brooke White’s song was “really here.” What does that mean? What in the name of all that is good and true does that mean?]


Previews: I’ve gotten a lot of good responses to things lately that I just haven’t been able to get to. What I really hope to get to soon, but in case I don’t, just treat it like a movie that failed its test screening.

Sam Miller, one of my readers (that sounds pretentious, but I’ll say it anyway)has a new essay out at Conversational Quarterley that looks pretty good, but I need to read it more closely before I say more.

My good friend Julia Kasdorf has been up to her usual good stuff with reading and writing up at Penn State.

I’ve also managed to get the folks at MyAccess royally po’d. I think they’ve marshalled their hit squad of professional MyAccess users.

Also passed my two month anniversary as a blogger 3500+ page hits. And some of them are not even from the students I am paying to click through my pages (heh! heh!) Have got to talk about the compulsive addiction to write that is occasioned by anonymous readers.

But all that is for the future. After American Idol is over.


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.