The Importance of Seeming Learned

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.


One thought on “The Importance of Seeming Learned”

  1. I was reading “How to Read a Book” the other day (the irony of that never escapes me), and the authors note that the human brain will atrophy, much like any other muscle, when not stimulated or challenged. And as much as we think engaging television is doing for us what a good book does, the authors suggest that such entertainment is actually an “artificial” prop and the brain will continue to atrophy.

    Without the book here in front of me, I can’t reference the studies they cite. But ultimately, the research suggests a link between the cultivation of the mind and physical health. Those that have chosen active rather than passive means of entertainment (e.g. reading, making vs. watching, consuming), are likely to live longer. And they say this becomes increasingly important as we age and retire.

    With all that said, I’ve learned that reading is something like working out (which fits our understanding of the brain as muscle from above). At first it seems difficult to read after a long day at the office, or maybe before. But little by little, reading endurance increases and becomes less and less of a chore.

    This post is also good reminder to me about what being well-read really means—to not worry so much about the quantity, but the quality of what I read and my depth of understanding.

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