Whatever happened to close reading, or In Search of Lost Time.

Years ago, my French prof told us in a seminar on the Twentieth-century French Novel that she hadn’t read Proust’s seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu – life is too short to read lengthy books, she said. If one believes Pierre Bayard, who recently developed a theory of non-reading in his essay How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, she could have gotten sacked, like the English professor in his book who publicly admitted to never having read Hamlet.

pile of books

Bayard, in the slick, seemingly effortless style of the French intellectual who tends to eloquently elaborate upon what everybody already knows anyway, argues that it is more important to be able to situate a book within the ‘collective library’ than to know it in detail; not reading thus ultimately becomes a more authentic creative act than reading.

While I have to admit that the book relieved my conscience to a certain degree (I haven’t read the Recherche either…), I’m not quite sure what to say about it (in Bayard’s own classification system it would be an FB, a book I have read but forgotten), but in retrospect I wish I’d just skimmed it (SB) or not read it (HB – book I’ve heard about), which would have left me with more time to start reading the Proust.

2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to close reading, or In Search of Lost Time.

  1. I think you are the first reviewer of Bayard’s I’ve come across who claims to have actually read the book in question. The conceit is just to deliciously meta for most reviewers to pass up, I guess.

    I’ll admit to being intrigued by his scandalously heretical thesis. But at a third of the way into La Prisonnière, surely it’s too late to stop now…?

  2. I haven’t quite made up my mind on the issue… I think Bayard’s book actually manages to illustrate his own theory very well (having a sense of the whole discourse surrounding it would have been more than enough and would have enabled me to write the very same blog post; reading it didn’t really add to my knowledge or give me pleasure or whatever it is we read for) – and in that sense it’s very successful.

    It’s successful in that way, but on the other hand I do want books to do all that (knowledge, pleasure, a different view of the world, surprising images, etc.), and isn’t the fact that reading can be slow and even painful part of the pleasure of it (you, as one of the few people who actually do read Proust, might tell…)?

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