Easy Chair — From the March 2015 issue

On Not Being Well Read

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I loved reading before I could read. I have a distinct memory — yes, our memories are subject to lapses and improvisations, but this one has been around so long I can’t doubt it — of myself at perhaps five years old, sitting between my mother and my father, them with their respective books, me holding my own big book full of pictureless pages of small type, turning the pages one by one and scanning them, chuckling or smiling or sighing now and then as my parents did. It seemed an inexpressibly delightful activity. It still does.

So I have read many books, uncounted numbers of them, starting as soon as I could and continuing to this day. I am sure that I have read more books than most people, though I am equally sure that there are many people who have read far more. I have taken in a number of works so unlikely or recondite that the mention of them would certainly suggest great erudition. I had a weird teenage fascination for little-read and less-performed dramas and libretti: Byron’s Manfred, Milton’s Comus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. I read Thomas Love Peacock rather than The Count of Monte Cristo. For a year or two I carried around beautiful pale-green library volumes of Swinburne, and read those too. Still, I can’t call myself well read — the appellation seems ill fitting, someone else’s hat or coat. It was never an ambition of mine, and it has puzzled me in others.

What exactly constitutes being well read, anyway? As with “well groomed” or “well built,” there’s a certain approbation inherent in the term. But what is being approved of? Not just the reading of many books, but of specific books — and the retention of their contents, perhaps through consistent rereading (the Symposium or Hamlet once a year). So what term would be appropriate for me and others like me? “Much read” reverses syntactically the direction of the reading, and isn’t right. “Widely read” implies only a certain catholicity, whereas “well read” implies a program: the right books at the right time, a good coverage of literary accomplishment through the ages, which may shape the growing spirit and then refresh the mature one. But readers aren’t alike; most don’t follow a program or a plan, even if they aspire to one in youth; the constraints and accidents, the quirks of taste and opportunity that form a reading life are as varied and yet as determining as those that form the rest of our experience.

When I was ten years old, my family (I had four sisters, one older than me) moved from New England to coal-mining northeastern Kentucky, where my father had taken a job as the medical director of a small hospital run by an order of Catholic nuns. All of us had been frequenters of our former town’s library, a little Victorian building with a children’s room in the basement. There the complete works of Thornton Burgess, including Old Mother West Wind and Reddy Fox, were arrayed on a long low shelf. The room also boasted an entrancing line of identical volumes bound in blue, each one telling the story of a child in a land other than mine, each cover with a silhouette of the youthful protagonist in native dress. Books are an information-delivery system, and what’s central to their function has little to do with their typefaces, bindings, trim size, or paper. But I am sure that when people remember the books they first loved or most loved, they can remember the look and feel of the physical object at least as well as (or often better than) the content. The Victorian novelist George Gissing once wrote that he knew his books by smell: “I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”

There was no library in the tiny Kentucky town to which we had moved. How were we to get our books? My mother learned that it was possible to send away to the state library, in Lexington, and ask to have books delivered from their holdings. Here’s how it worked: we sent in a list of the books, or kinds of books, that each of us wanted. The books came to the local post office in the sort of stout brown box with straps that was then called a “laundry case” (because, I suppose, people away at school or work would send their dirty clothes home in such a container to be cleaned and returned). We read — or didn’t read — the books, packed them up, put in a list of further requests, and sent the box back.

So we had a huge library at our disposal but no way to browse its stacks, which meant that a lot of miscellaneous reading arrived in response to vague requests for “true stories” or “books about animals” or “mysteries, but not thrillers” or whatever was put on the list in addition to the known and the named. That’s how one day I got a complete Sherlock Holmes without asking for it. I started with The Sign of Four, which I found to be truly terrifying, in part because I didn’t understand it was a story with a mystery that would be resolved by the end; it seemed to me simply a series of horrid and unearthly events, and the ending didn’t have for me the intended effect of dissipating the terror. But still I read all the rest. My sisters got some of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books, which I also read. These I could easily understand as little clockwork stories with endings that exactly matched their beginnings.

We were homeschooled by a nun recruited from the hospital and were assigned no particular books; my mother tried to teach us French, using some French versions of Beatrix Potter stories I dearly loved. Within two years my father moved our family to an Indiana city with many branch libraries as well as the library of the college where he was employed. As we headed downtown in the Studebaker to the local branch, my mother would lead us in the standard appeal to a saint famous for finding things for petitioners:

Dear St. Anthony
Please find a parking place for me
Right in front of the li-brar-ee.

What did I find there? Biographies, for one thing. At around age twelve I went through a large number of these, including volumes about Woodrow Wilson, an RAF pilot who lost both legs, and Alexandre Dumas, père, whose novels I skipped. I took up The Silver Chalice and other historical romances by Thomas Costain, one after another. (This was before my dalliance with obscure dramatic works.) Sick in bed, I’d read my mother’s mystery novels — four in a day, once — though never when I was well.

Did television displace the need to read into an easier realm of discourse, one that was never off? No, it didn’t. Most of the television of my youth was graspable if given even slight attention, and the visual draw of black-and-white images on C.R.T. screens was minimal (“cool,” as Marshall McLuhan perceived). You could read while watching it, and I did. But I got little closer to being well read. College wasn’t much help; as a member of the Silent Generation of good boys and girls, I thought it was clever to get As in literature courses without reading many of the classics assigned. Only later did I perceive an error there — one that my scanty exploration of Aesop should have already made clear to me.

Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read met an urgent need when it was published, in 2007, just as Dale Carnegie’s self-help bestseller How to Win Friends & Influence People once did for a much larger demographic. Bayard is frank about the fact that we haven’t read a lot of the books we talk about with offhand familiarity, and he approves. “Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it,” Bayard writes, he had to work out a way to deal with “the stigma attached to non-reading, which . . . arises from a whole network of anxieties rooted (no doubt) in early childhood.” He is now a teacher of literature, and the gaps in his reading create a “risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated.” He wants to help the similarly afflicted to “emerge unscathed” from “the unconscious guilt that an admission of non-reading elicits.”

Bayard is not of course talking about just any old books, no matter how odd or numerous, but only the books that a well-read mind should be furnished with, those that a professional in the field — like himself — could be assumed to have read and pondered. Bayard knows that even most professed book-lovers are in the same situation to some degree — that which we should have read we did not read, and that which we did read we should not have read — and he proposes a theory of reading that allows readers and non-readers alike to participate in a general conversation about the stuff between covers, even those we haven’t opened.

No matter how much or how little of a book we’ve read, Bayard asserts, we are always in touch with “the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text.” Don Quixote and Falstaff, Raskolnikov’s dilemma and Scarlett O’Hara’s, belong as much to those of us who haven’t read the works as to those who have. Hearing about a book, reading a bit and putting it down, reading and then forgetting its contents — all these are forms of acquisition, additions to the “collective library” we share with the rest of the world, the well and the ill read alike.

Your acceptance of Bayard’s offer, and of his sincerity in proposing it, will perhaps depend in part on your need for approval from yourself and others. Many of the not-well-read deal with feelings of guilt and shame by persuading themselves that they actually have read the books that they’ve only heard about, or by brazen fakery, like the phony marathon runner who slips away from the throng, jumps on the subway for a couple of stops, and then rejoins the race triumphantly at the finish line. The fear of being caught out haunts them, and it haunts them more the better they are at faking it.

That’s not really my case. I have surely forgotten more of the books I’ve read than I’ve remembered, but I remember a lot, and even without subtly falsifying my actual mastery of canons or five-foot shelves, I deploy without thinking a range of literary reference so esoteric that I can’t help giving the impression of being well read. If I protest that I’m not, I can seem like someone claiming — in a certain tone of voice, while swirling a Bordeaux beneath the nose — to know nothing about wine: Compared with whom?

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