The art of not reading

There are more books published then any one individual can ever read in their lifetime. The avalanche of texts is one of the greatest problems that I am encountering with my research: the number of books that I am cataloging and finding for my database of dialogues is simply growing exponentially. With over 2,000 books now cataloged the fact is that I will not be able to read all of them, which raises the question of how can I possibly understand a genre that I cannot even read fully? The literary theorist Franco Moretti made this point rather forcefully in his article ‘The Slaughterhouse of literature’ when he said that:

“Knowing two hundred novels is already difficult. Twenty thousand? How can we do it, what does “knowledge” mean, in this new scenario? One thing for sure: it cannot mean the very close reading of very few texts.”

For instance, if we have a scholar who reads, say, John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress very closely they are reading only one of many pious devotional texts from the seventeenth century. Perhaps they expand their reading to include 200 devotional texts in order to contextualise the book in a broader scope of literature,they are still missing out on all of the other books from the dialogue genre that Pilgrims Progress was part of. This is before we even start to look at the theological tracts, along with pilgrimage and travel narratives that are also connected to Bunyan’s religious book. At best the student of Bunyan will only ever understand 0.5% of the literature published in this period. This leaves a vast unknown body of literature that is unread, unknown and neglected by the literary historian. The question is: what do we do with this vast body of literature that is forgotten and neglected? Some have said that this neglect is justified, as these works are of little literary merit and deserve to be relegated to the trash heap of history. This hardly seems satisfactory to leave vast chunks of literature out of what we study, yet to study canonical texts is to do so. Quentin Skinner is one who has been vocal about the need to apply a historic contextual methodology which looks at the paradigm, or genre in which a writer is writing within to understand the ways in which he utilised the protocols and rules of the genre, and violated them for rhetorical and political effect. As Skinner states in Meaning and Context:

‘if we succeed in identifying this linguistic context with sufficient accuracy, we can eventually hope to read of what the speaker or writer whom we are interested was doing in saying what he or she said.’ Skinner (277)

This method of looking at a broader sample is certainly useful but as mentioned above it is still only a fractional sample of literature that is consulted. As Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes reminded us texts are a tissue of quotations that draw upon the entirety of literature to give them meaning and connection. To consider only a parochial fraction of this literature is to miss out on the vast range of connections and relationships between texts. Preston King in his critique of Skinner and Pocock’s method points out, however, that to broaden the context that a text is studied in can become an infinite regress. The context forms a different species of text. This is what I think Moretti is trying to do, to treat the broad context that the canonical texts exist in, namely the entire literary production of a century, as a text which can be studied through a different set of methodological tools such as linguistic analysis, graphs, charts and trees. Using the more quantifiable and abstract tools that are traditionally used in a less arts based discipline he believes the big picture of literature can be studied.

This approach to literature essentially erases books and reduces them to nodes in a vast amount of data. It is a process of not-reading.  It is to read them from a distance. This methodology is currently being applied by LIt Lab who are utilising Moretti’s concept of approaching texts using abstract models constructed from their meta-data. The idea is that to avoid simply reading closely but on a bigger scale, a task that seems a bit soul-destroying, you simply explore texts at a more abstract level of analysis. The context that the canonical texts were written in, the genre and forms of literature become a text which is analysed. This process of non reading is inherent in literature as the production of a literary canon is done through not-reading texts and slaughtering the texts not deemed worthy of being preserved as Moretti describes it:

“The slaughter of literature. And the butchers—readers: who read novel A (but not B, C, D, E, F, G, H, . . .) and so keep A “alive” into the next generation, when other readers may keep it alive into the following one, and so on until eventually A becomes canonized.”

Moretti places the marketplace as the driver of creating a canonical set of texts. It is the texts that people continue to read that persist to be part of the canon and popularity invariabbly has little to do with literary merit, as the Twilight trilogy so amply demonstrates. It is possible to have incredibly popular books, that are badly written and of no literary merit. It is the idea of not reading that I think is fascinating. This idea is one that was first highlighted to me in the work of Pierre Bayard who said that:

“The act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” (Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read, p. 6)

The importance of not reading books and a more philosophical reflection on this process is one that has not been considered by many. Yet, I think it is crucial to fully understanding literature in any meaningful way. Moretti in advocating has certainly caused a stir within literary communities, as his ideas have been seen as overly mechanised, and manipulating computers to validate ideas that he has already formed before he approaches the text. But his approach is not that novel really. In the book The man without qualities the ideas that Moretti has pushed with his project are already articulated by the librarian there. General Stumm in the book approaches the librarian to help him to find a set of works. This librarian has found a way to orient himself among all the books in the world his technique is simple, as he tells the General: ‘if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.’ The general is astonished by this who maintains his cultural literacy through avoiding books, but the librarian asserts that:

‘the secret to a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian.’ (The Man Without Qualities, p503)

The librarian instead of devoting himself to a close reading of texts, spends his time understanding how all the books in the library are related to each other. It is the way in which the texts are connected and correlated that he studies. This is surely the way in which we are able to comprehend vast amounts of books, it is not by reading all of them but understanding the relationships and ways in which they are related in a literary system. We need to be able to locate books in a broader matrix, as often the content of a book is in large part its location in literature. Once we are able to locate a book it makes non-reading from a passive into an active process. A process by which we can confront the tide of books that we have not read and not drown from them.

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One response to “The art of not reading

  1. Pingback: How to talk about books you haven’t read | Early Modern Dialogues·

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