Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reading for Pleasure. And Not.

It’s funny -- and perhaps not ha-ha -- that this brace of books should have been released in the same season. One seems almost to cancel the other out.

On the one hand, Pierre Bayard’s brilliant but at least slightly silly How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (Raincoast/Bloomsbury) suggests that all the reading we expect ourselves to do in our lifetimes is a big ol’ waste of time. At one point Bayard tells us that “all literature ends up providing us only a fragile and temporary knowledge.” And, that being the case, what really is the point of reading -- really reading -- at all?

Considering that Bayard is a professor of literature -- albeit a French one -- as well as the author of a rich bouquet of scholarly yet entertaining, internationally acclaimed books, I’m fairly confident that How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is something of a spoof, though not an especially funny one.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read starts out slightly interesting, from a philosophical point of view but, before the concluding chapter, it has devolved into something snide and closed: an inside joke at the expense of the reader and -- considering the advice here -- there doesn’t seem to be any burning reason to rush out and buy this particular book. After all, should you actually read the book, you are likely to be an object of ridicule and scorn. French ridicule and scorn, even. Merde. What could be worse?

If the title had your hopes up, though, there is a way to talk about books you haven’t read: at least some of them. In Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt) Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, Michael Dirda, gives us breezy and elegant introductions to some of the most important literature and authors from history. Publishers Weekly described the book as casually brilliant and this fits perfectly. Classics for Pleasure is just what the title promises: pleasurable. It’s like sitting down with a good but incredibly erudite and well read friend and talking about work by Edward Gorey and Bram Stoker and Isak Dinesen and Willa Cather and Dashiell Hammett and Eudora Welty and... well, you get the idea: close to 90 of the most important and entertaining literary works of all time.

“What, precisely,” Dirda asks in the introduction, “is gained by skipping right by so many of the world’s established masterpieces? A great deal, I think.”

Which just about hits the nail on the head.


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