Reading

by CarlD

Mikhail at Perverse Egalitarianism, who incidentally along with his colleague Shahar has the best booze-fueled pretentious intellectual schtick I’ve ever seen, is reading a book on reading and not reading which is reminding me how odd our process of engaging with others and learning from/with them can be.

In a later comment Mikhail says

Seriously though I’ve been rather disturbed by Bayard’s book about talking about books you haven’t read – I thought it was going to be funny and tongue-in-cheek but it’s quite serious for the most part and addresses an issue I really haven’t seen in print before, that is, how we really don’t read the book we read or claim to have read – nothing psychological or super-theoretical, just the basic fact that we forget the books we’ve read in a very short time and then we read them again and selectively, so each of us has a very different memory (not just interpretation or a perspective) of the same book… In a sense, we’re all talking about a different book when we discuss, say, Kant’s first critique or Marx’s Capital.

So much for the Enlightenment! I like to own the books I read because then I can mark them up as I go. It’s like having a conversation with the author in the margin. Also the piles of them on the floor are festively decorative. When I go back to books I haven’t looked at in a while, I sometimes just take my own word for it and zero in on the parts I’ve blocked or commented on (e.g. when I’m refreshing for teaching), and then I’m usually alright. But if I actually re-read, I often find myself perplexed at why I picked out what I did, or what my train of thought was when I wrote what was clearly at the time a self-evident remark in the margin. It’s as if some stranger with different priorities and agendas had spritzed the book with his traces. Sometimes that guy was pretty smart, and sometimes he was a dead dunce.

For one thing I’m usually reading more than one book at once, seeding my environment with them, a pencil stuck in each to keep my place; so my reading ends up being an accidental conversation among me and several authors, which produces some terrific collisions but would be very difficult to reproduce, including for me later when I’m trying to explain why I think what I think. Not to mention all the ‘live’ conversations I’m having at any given time. We never enter the same stream of consciousness twice.

When I’m revered after my death little disciples will want to figure me all out and that will be funny as hell. They’d have to go back through all the books I’ve read, decode the marginalia, and dope out what order and circumstances I read them in. My head is bricolaged all the way down. Incidentally I tried to do this with Gramsci, whose personal library is preserved at the PCI archives in Rome. Turns out that because he grew up poor, with a reverence for the book, he wouldn’t have dreamed of writing in one. Bummer. But I guess we have that to thank for the Prison Notebooks.

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4 Comments to “Reading”

  1. Actually in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Complete Works editions in the Soviet Union there were volumes of (basically republished) books they’ve read with remarks, so you can read Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks that are basically passages copied from Hegel with some comments and you can get Stalin’s copy of Marx’s Capital with often very small marginalia like “good” or an occasional question mark here and there…

    Bayard’s book is very simple stylistically but very powerful, I thought, because it situates the professional dialogue (he’s from literary studies) in a context where he claims it truly belongs which is the discussion of connections, gaps, references, allusions and so forth – and not in a sexy postmodernist way, but a kind of realistic way.

    PS. Booze-related news: my noble state (of CO) is finally overcoming its puritan past and is about to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays – bright future coming for us at PervEgalit…

  2. My vicarious enjoyment of Bayard increases. It’s as if I’ve read him. And I like it so much when ‘realistic’ and ‘postmodernist’ are in the same sentence.

    Congratulations on the delightful news from your state. Please tell me you’re not in Fort Collins. I wouldn’t have thought of Colorado as having a puritan past; if western movies are to be believed, wouldn’t you have been suffering through their lengthy recovery from the opposite?

    I’m shocked by your implication that Stalin was not a careful and perceptive reader.

  3. Stalin actually made all kinds of marks with all kinds of pencils in his personal books and hsi personal library after his death was in a special secret archive because, apparently, he wasn’t very nice and could sometimes disagree with the Marxist classics or, even worse, while reading Trosky, write things like ‘Good point’ or ‘Excellent’. Robert C. Tucker got some access to the archive, I think, for his book Stalin In Power but then again it’s been so long since I “read” that book… So make sure you leave a decoding guidelines for your editors otherwise they will have to the decipher your meanings depending of the depth of your nail impact or the chemical analysis of the saliva on the page (and it’s location vis-a-vis an occasional coffee stain).

    I drove around in the vicinity of Ft.Collins once, if that answers your question…

  4. Oh, well, Stalin wasn’t very nice, that’s more like it.

    Rachel has been watching a nice documentary on Frida Kahlo to get herself into ‘art head’ and I was amused to see Trotsky featured as a houseguest, aficionado of young girls, and lover of whom she soon tired. Shook the world but not hers, apparently. Is there a revolutionary who doesn’t turn out to have been an ass in person?

    I was recently in Fort Collins for the AP reading and would have grieved if it turned out you were there to snark with in person. It seemed like a nice enough place with many fine locales for pleasant tipsy chat.

    As fetching as the town and CSU campus were, as majestic as the mountain views might have been, the drive between Ft. Collins and the Denver airport was through some of the unloveliest landscape I have ever seen.

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