Deep meaning in non-reading

The deep meaning of non-reading

By Allan Roy Andrews

                It may be an apocryphal tale, but the story goes that the executors of the estate of philosopher-psychologist William James discovered when going through James’ library after his death in 1910 that his books were heavily marked, but only for the first 50-75 pages.  After that, the pages showed no signs of having been turned or read.  The great thinker didn’t finish most books he had started.

                In a similar vein, talk-show host Larry King often interviews authors of new books.  King has nonchalantly admitted that he rarely if ever prepares for the interview by reading a guest author’s book.  In his own defense, King claimed he wanted the author to tell him what the book said so he didn’t feel compelled to read beyond its dust jacket.

                These two stories bounced around my brain recently as I read Pierre Bayard’s fascinating volume called, How to Talk  About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury USA, 2007).  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess as of this writing I have read 125 of the 185 pages of Bayard’s book.)

                Bayard created a system of abbreviations that involves letters and plus or minus signs assigned to books.  Thus, he indicates books as UB, SB, HB, and FB, which are shorthand, respectively, for “book unknown to me,” “book I have skimmed,” “book I have heard about,” and “book I have forgotten.”  Each of these abbreviations can be augmented with one or two plus or minus signs indicating whether the reviewer’s opinion was positive or negative, and two additional designations, BR (book read) and BNR (book not read), Bayard dismisses as unessential.

                To my delight, I find Bayard unabashedly defending and encouraging what he calls “the rich category that is non-reading.”   Books we have skimmed, books we have heard about, and books we have forgotten fill this rich category.   Those unread and forgotten texts are crucial elements in our “collective library” and become part of our intellectual and social personae, Bayard argues.   Keep in mind, please; this is an argument from a man of letters, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris.

                Our educational enterprise, with its compulsive consumption of texts, needs a strong dose of this appreciation for non-reading.  Bayard says a book stops being unknown to me as soon as it enters my perceptual field, and once it enters my “cultural space” the question of whether or not I have read it  is unimportant.  In fact, Bayard argues, by distancing ourselves from our compulsions to read a particular book we may discover the text’s true meaning.  By having to talk about a book we have not read we are engaging in a creative act that is far more important than anything we might gain from having devoured a particular text, Bayard says.

                Permit me a paraphrase of Bayard’s thesis (which of course is a summary of my understanding of Bayard and that is the important creative act here).  He is teaching us to relax about our literary ignorance; in fact, he fondly quotes Oscar Wilde who felt 10 minutes was the required time he should devote to reading any single book.  I think the leisure of non-reading may lead us to greater meaning as we confront texts that enter our cultural space.

                Think for a moment what this implies for students and for overbearing instructors who decry the shortcuts of Cliff’s NotesSpark Notes, and Wikipedia!  Be at ease; there is deep meaning to be found in non-reading, in skimming, and in crib notes (based on someone else’s reading).

                Let me take Bayard out on a theological/devotional limb here and address what is often a Christian compulsion related to reading the Bible.  I posit two extensions of his argument that non-reading is a significant part of a person’s cultural space.

                First, our non-reading of the Bible may be important when we are put in a situation of having to talk about the book we have never read or perhaps merely skimmed.  I dare say that most Sunday School children have either never read or have merely skimmed (or as adults have forgotten) the Bible stories that lie at the foundation of their faith.  Nevertheless, the meaning of those unread stories has shaped to a great degree their understanding and image of God, the world, sin and salvation.

                Second, the wisdom and value of lectio divina, which encourages a leisurely, contemplative attending to a single word or phrase in a Bible passage as a path to spiritual understanding and growth, often resolves into what is called “praying the scriptures” and can be viewed as a deep and creative journey into non-reading.

                There used to be a recurring feature in literary magazines under the headline:  “Books that changed my mind.”  I wonder how many of those mind-altering treatises were actually unread.

                I’m not trying to denigrate or deny value in literacy, but there is no salvific power or inherent goodness in devotion to reading or in our compulsive consumption of texts.  I have read the New Testament story of Jesus and the rich, young ruler, and in none of the versions I’ve consulted does Jesus admonish, “Go, and read every book you can get your hands on.”

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