Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to talk about books you've never read

The economist this week has a review of this book by Pierre Bayard, who argues that "the truly cultivated person is not the one who has read a book, but the one who understands the book's place in our culture." Well... that's not exactly what Bayard wrote, it's just a line from the publisher's blurb, but I think I get the idea. Perhaps I'll get around to reading his book one day...

Either way, it is deeply satisfying to hear someone argue for a more subtle relationship to books than simple consumption.

I've always thought of my relationship with authors I should have read or would like to read to be a kind of flirting (which is Irigaray's term, I believe). I've been flirting with de Beauvoir and Nietzsche for a number of years now. By contrast, I feel I am in a very domesticated relationship with Merleau-Ponty. Reading Husserl, it must be said, and I speak from experience here, is like soliciting a prostitute. The encounter is always very professional, but have no doubt, he will make you pay for it.

To be honest, just thinking about reading Nietzsche is enough to make me feel emasculated; nothing but a herd-like wimp. By contrast, I regularly have enjoyable one night stands with Alphonso Lingis and Michel Foucault.

Ironically, lately it has been a political economist, Michael Albert, and a lawyer, Roberto Unger, who have got my pulse racing. I actually did read all of Albert's book, Parecon, but Unger's heady passion was a little too much, so I had to set aside The Self Awakened for fear of swooning. In the cold light of day, however, I am starting to suspect I may have succumbed to nothing more a childish crush.

This may also explain why I tend to prefer to read minor literary figures. Reading incredibly popular books by Sartre or Heidegger or Zizek, or the classics like Hegel or even Kant, feels a little like getting on the town bike. You can't help but be constantly reminded that everyone has been here before.

At the moment, Bayard is just a pretty thing on the other side of the room. But who knows, he's unlikely to be as disappointing a tumble in the hay as Michel Onfray.

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