Books I Haven’t Read

Since I just bought Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I guess that I should post on it now, not having read it, rather than later when maybe I will.

I became a book collector fairly early on and all the way up through my early post-college years I could still name the author and title of every book I owned and I had honestly familiarized myself with at least a significant chunk of each one. But then as my income grew while my available free time stayed constant or even has diminished slightly, the portion of my book collection with which I have that level of familiarity has shrunk precipitously. At this point I have to confess to being as much a book collector as a book reader. In fact, it occurred to me a few nights ago, after recently having installed three new shelves, that I may have to start budgeting my book acquisitions in shelf-inches rather than dollars (“I’m only allowed three inches this month so its either the thousand page tomb or the two 350 page jobs”).

When S. saw me unload this latest acquisition from my bag she was rather amused that I had found just the right book. But with the seed planted, on no less than three occasions throughout the day did I catch myself and stop to point out that I was just that moment talking about some text that I had not in fact read.

And this dovetails well with David Brooks’s column a few weeks ago on “The Outsourced Brain” (The New York Times, 26 October 2007) where he said,

I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.

In a follow-up, Ezra Klein really makes the not reading point (“The External Brain,” 26 October 2007):

But so long as [Google’s] around, I don’t need to really read anything. I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read. I don’t so much study web sites as scan for impressions, for markers, for key words I’ll need if I want to return. I don’t need the knowledge so much as a vague outline of what the knowledge is and how to get back.

Indeed, not reading is the wave of the future.

When I was younger and not yet even a dilettante, still just groping toward my present pissant snobbery, my younger and even more bizarre brother, brought us both into contact with the film The Metropolitan. The class issues were lost on me at the time, but it was a revelation: people just hanging around talking about ideas and drinking cocktails. What more could a person possibly want?

The snippet of dialogue that then as now stands out to me the most is one of their salon go-rounds:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

To this day I probably read twice as many book reviews as I do actual books.