I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Friday, April 19, 2013

More than one way of reading

I have been reading a little book written by the French psychoanalyst and professor of literature Pierre Bayard.

It is full of interesting ideas.

Bayard convincingly makes the point that “reading” has not a single, universally applicable meaning, and challenges us to admit that sometimes (or often, or always) we talk about books that we haven’t read from cover to cover.

Furthermore, he points out that, inevitably, we only retain a fraction of the information contained in a book. Therefore, even if we have indeed carefully read a book in its entirety, we can only talk about our impressions and interpretations that its content has elicited in us.

And as our memories fade with time, can we knowledgeably talk about books that we read months and years ago?

This last point stroke a chord with me. In a couple of occasions, I even bought a book I had already read, thinking that I hadn’t. It was somewhat bewildering to discover another copy of the same book in my bookcase. If I can completely forget some of the books I read, I have certainly forgotten the content of many of the books I still remember to have read.

What is the length of the reading-forgetting cycle? For me, scaringly short. I used to have a very good memory. I could read a poem a few times and be able to recite it. But, with the passing of years, my short- and medium-term memories have been deteriorating. Sometimes, immediately after reading a novel, I wonder how it begun. And my memory for names, whether they are characters in a story of real people in real life, is simply appalling.

Hopefully, something of what I read is still spread across a number of neurons and influences my thought.

On the basis of these considerations, why should I be more entitled to talk about a book I read long ago than somebody who skimmed it a couple of days ago or recently read an article about it?

It really seems that “reading” is in the eye of the beholder, to paraphrase a well known cliché.

Bayard suggests that we qualify each book with an acronym that indicates its “reading status”:
UB book unknown to me
SB book I have skimmed
HB book I have heard about
FB book I have forgotten
It seems reasonable, but I contend that UB is totally useless because, as soon as somebody mentions to me a book I didn’t know it existed, that book immediately acquires for me the status HB. Then, what’s the purpose of defining the status UB? Perhaps Bayard reserves UB for books of which he only knows the title, or part of it, but that doesn’t make sense because the title already tells something about the content. UB could only be used for all books of which I don’t even know the titles, but I certainly don’t care about them.

I also have a small issue with FB, because you can only forget what you once knew. So, does FB apply to books that were once SB or HB? And what about the books we actually read (in the strictest sense of reading all words in them)?

Notice that Bayard doesn’t define any acronym for books actually read. This is because he considers “read” too ambiguous to be used (or perhaps because he never really reads any book). But I like to think that if I have actually read more than 50% of the pages of a book, and have not forgotten of its existence, I should be able to use RB. Obviously, with time, many RBs will silently morph into FBs.

I religiously (interesting spontaneous choice of adverb...) maintain a list of all books I own and/or have read. There are books I own and have read, books I own and haven’t read [yet], books I read but don’t own (either because I borrowed them or because I gave them away), and books I don’t own and have never read. The last category only includes a handful of books I want to remember for whatever reasons. Consistently with what I said in the previous paragraph, I flag a book as “read” if I actually read more than 50% of its pages.

All in all, the classification I find most appropriate (if there has to be one) is as follows:
HB book I have heard of read about but never held in my hands
SB book I have held in my hands and skimmed
RB book of which I once read more than 50% of the pages
Whether I have forgotten what I once knew about the book or not, refers to a totally different dimension and applies to all books I came in contact with, regardless of the way in which that happened.

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