Over on National Review Online, Garin K. Hovannisian has postedhis engaging review of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. My favorite passage is near the end:
[M]odern readers neither understand nor deserve the texts they read (let alone those they don’t). Instead of scooping for symbols, seeking poetry, and being at least receptive to majestic truths, they prefer to rewind their petty postmodern formula for one more deconstruction. If hegemony and racism and social constructs are what they seek, then reading is excessive indeed.
But for those in the rising generation who still believe in art, Bayard’s prescription should be read, mused over, laughed through, and surrendered to memory’s fade. Instead of learning to talk about books we haven’t read, we must relearn to talk about books we have read.
Having sat in an English graduate classroom with people, discussing what we’d read and pretending to have read more things that we should have, this assessment seems perfect. Bayard’s book is a bestseller in France, and it will probably sell well in translation stateside. Why? Because we love the illusion of being learned.
Since we have largely forgotten the purpose of education–and the practice, for that matter–it becomes important to seem like you’re educated. It’s part of our culture now, fodder for sitcom plots, that the most important thing is to seem like you know what you’re talking about. And because our culture is about as deep as a puddle in a desert, it’s not very hard. We “converse” in soundbites, spouting what we’ve seen or heard elsewhere. And hey, it’s a little bit of what I’m doing here. Sure, I read the review, but I haven’t read Bayard’s book. But it fits under one of my personal soapboxes, so I take a few minutes to pontificate.
Now that I’ve demonstrated that I illustrate my argument, I have to get back to skimming Catch-22, which, as we all know, is a protest novel underscored with dark humor. (1) It, of course, sets out the absurdity of living by the rules of others, be they friends, family, governments, systems, religions or philosophies. (2) But you already knew that.