Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Perfect Saturday: Learning to Talk About Books I Haven't Read

In Minnesota a late October day and a trip to the mechanic rarely lead to much good. But an afternoon full of warmth and sunshine, when combined with the discovery of a tight, funny, and novel collection of essays meant that I could find happiness even while my car was up on the rack. The fun started while perusing the "Books About Books" section of Half-Price Books in Highland Park. Lately I have more and more taken to absorbing my literature indirectly--not by diving into literary works themselves, but by trying to find interest and amusement without the hard work. And so I came upon Pierre Bayard's "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," as translated by Jeffrey Mehlman.

I expected cheesy instruction on the strategy of chatting about literature. But this is nothing of the sort. The work is a thoughtful discussion of why we should be enthusiastic about literary and other ideas even in the face of life's grand limitations. It begins by appealing to the reader's self-interest, by absolving readers for not having read all of literature's canon.

Can't we all admit that there are some iconic works that we should have read, but haven't? For instance, I have never read Joyce's "Ulysses." A sad admission for a devotee of literature, but there you have it. Bayard makes the point that even if we are well read, we are still likely to have huge gaps in our knowledge of literature. Who has really read all of Conrad, Mencken, Traven? And can anyone really stay abreast of the twenty promising new novels published each month? The point is drilled home with reference to someone who, looking for a specific bit of wisdom, strolls the stacks of a vast library and does a mental calculation, finding that it will take a hundred lifetimes to tackle just this one library. So Bayard charms us by showing how any attempt to actually read everything, or one percent of everything, or even all works in the "canon," is folly.

Bayard also tackles the ambiguity of what it means to have read something. If you have read a work, but cannot remember anything of it, can you really claim to have read it? Even if you've recently finished reading a book, how quickly does it vanish from memory? Doesn't it really become what Bayard calls a "shadow book," a sometimes inaccurate, always modified version of the original?

His discussion of what happens when the public meets an author is instructive. Sometimes readers fix on details and interpretations that leave the author aghast. Precision and detailed recollection of a work can interfere with such a meeting, perhaps leaving the author with the bitter realization that a work has been revered for all the wrong reasons, reasons perhaps perverse to the author's intention. His advice: praise the work without offering specifics. Similar observations are made about academic or classroom discussions of literature. Attempting to find out if someone has read a book, or assuming they have not based on stated inaccuracies, is demonstrated to be a dangerous, uncertain, and even counterproductive business.

A good collection of essays, like a family, has both commonalities, that which binds them, and differences, that which makes them interesting. This collection is marvelously unified. Bayard has uncovered five or six stunning literary references that bear on his theme. The varied nature of these references, from classic French writers like Valery and Balzac, to scientific studies involving attempts to teach Hamlet to African natives, gives the reader confidence that one is being guided by a very thoughtful man. I admire Bayard's gift here. He realizes that these references can be pulled together and enlisted towards his end.

The individual chapters are likable, humorous, and penetrating. One chapter dissects a work wherein college literature professors play a game called "Humiliation." The players score points by naming prominent works that they have not read. Another chapter analyzes the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" and touches on how to talk about literature with one we love. Each individual essay is worthwhile.

The closing essays address literary criticism, asking the question, "How much must one read before one knows that a work is deficient?" Then it is suggested that the point of literary criticism really has nothing to do with the merits of the work itself, but is just an art form--one where a negative review can serve the critic's art just as well as a positive one. Equally provoking is the assertion that we have a moral duty not to read certain books--not as I expected because they are immoral, but because they are a waste of time.

I read the book while walking in the sunshine along the Mississippi and finished it just as my car lowered from the rack. "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" somehow eased the pain of the expensive brake job--my only regret being that Bayards' interesting and important work was not available to me many years ago.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.