Saturday 4 October 2008

The Inner Library

We continue to add book titles accompanied by micro-reviews to our list of books on the psychology of fiction, which you can access by clicking here. Recent additions include Margaret Anne Doody (1997). The true story of the novel. London: HarperCollins, and Alvin Goldman (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.

The latest addition to our list is Pierre Bayard's brilliant book on how you don't need to read books in their entirety (full title and micro-review below, and in our list). Bayard points out that even books we have read are retained in our memory only as fragments in what he aptly calls our inner library, which is entirely idiosyncratic. In our library, items seldom coincide exactly with items in the inner libraries of other people. So it is the fragments, and their inter-relationships, that are the matters to concentrate on. I was delighted to find that Bayard used, as examples, the fine scene in Graham Greene's The third man, (reissued 2005, London: Vintage) in which Holly Martins, author of pulp Westerns mistaken for a highbrow writer called Martins, has to give a talk at a literary gathering held in post-War Vienna, on the future of the novel (a topic he has never thought about), as well as a wonderful paper by the anthropologist Laura Bohannan (1966, Shakespeare in the bush. Natural History, Aug / Sept, 1-6, which I did not know existed in anyone's inner library but my own) in which she tries to explain to a group of the Tiv in Africa the story of Hamlet. The Tiv are interested in stories, and the group is very pleased when Bohannan offers to recount a story from her culture, but although they remain appreciative of her efforts, at every juncture they tell her she has it wrong: dead people do not reappear, the young Hamlet should not worry about affairs of state which should be left to elders, it is not wrong, but imperative, for a woman recently bereaved to marry again as quickly as possible, and so on. Bayard follows these episodes with scenes from David Lodge's Changing places, in which is introduced the game of Humiliation: in a group of literary people, you have to admit to not having read a famous book. Steppenwolf, anybody? Oliver Twist? Hamlet? Bayard's book gets even better as it goes along, and becomes a literary version of Bartlett's (1932, see our list of books by clicking here) theory of memory and understanding as based on personal and cultural schemas that are partial, ever active, and ever changing. Towards the end of the book (pp. 182-183) Bayard says: "Who can deny ... that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art. Just think of all the skills it calls into play—listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions."

Reference and micro-review
Pierre Bayard (2007). How to talk about books you haven't read (J. Mehlman, Trans.). London: Bloomsbury.

Professor of French literature and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, explains how to talk and think about books without reading them. In doing so he proposes a theory of reading and imagination: a rather good theory, about how we can come to know what various books say amid the otherwise all-too-formidable infinity of published material. He introduces an elegant notation for the books he discusses: SB to mean "book I have skimmed," HB to mean "book I have heard of," and FB, to mean "book I have forgotten." He offers as persons to admire the librarian in Robert Musil's Man without qualities (SB) who doesn't want to read any of the books in his library, but only to know how they relate to each other, and Paul Valéry (SB and HB) who advocated that we should avoid reading books because we too easily get lost in their details, or even have them overwhelm us. Bayard goes on to point out that what we remember of books, including those we have written ourselves (FB), in our inner library, is a collection of fragments, much like those from books we have skimmed or heard about. Bayard's book is so witty and engaging that I am sorry to say I read the whole of it, but at least I wrote this micro-review before I was half-way through.

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