What We Talk About When We Talk About Books (or Music)
December 18, 2007 in the literary conversation
Had some time this weekend to catch up on some old reviews—the highlight of today’s batch is New York Magazine‘s Sam Anderson reviewing Pierre Bayard‘s notorious book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Due to a delayed delivery, Anderson shamefacedly adopts the gambit of reviewing Bayard’s book without having read it. He ruefully observes, “I imagine that every other reviewer in America is, at this very moment, chortling into his tweed collar while pretending to do the same thing.”
Here’s Anderson’s synopsis of Bayard’s book:
Our reading is governed by a corrosive idealism that fills us all with secret shame: We believe we should be doing it more and better, and that, until we do, we fully deserve to be sneered at by college dropouts at the Strand. To Bayard, however, this is unrealistic. The line-by-line, cover-to-cover experience of a text, he argues, is passé; true reading consists mainly of nonreading…Deep knowledge of a particular book, Bayard contends, is almost always less important than an understanding of that book’s position in a “collective library”—the imagined cluster of books to which it’s related.
Anderson then goes on to ask, “Once a text whistles off into the slipstream of international hype, does it still need to exist? Or has our society, in its advanced stages of info-fluency, finally managed to do away with the thing itself?” What an odd and disturbing thought: is being part of the literati more about talking about talking about books than talking about books?
Between Anderson’s review and my friend Andrew’s take on the subject (again, more of an indirect response than a review), I think I’m pretty well-equipped to talk about this book without having read it, too (cue the WAH-WAH horns). After all, Anderson advises, “Bayard’s book benefits significantly from not being read.” Zing!
I found this “review” to dovetail nicely with an article Anderson published in New York Magazine yesterday: much in the vein of those “do a crazy thing for a year” books, Carl Wilson listens to nothing but Celine Dion for a year and documents this experience Let’s Talk About Love, the latest addition to 33 1/3′s album-centric series. Anderson discovers that Wilson’s experiment reveals a great deal about the nature of taste:
What motivates aesthetic judgment? Is our love or hatred of “My Heart Will Go On” the result of a universal, disinterested instinct for beauty-assessment, as Kant would argue? Or is it something less exalted? Wilson tends to side with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that taste is never disinterested: It’s a form of social currency, or “cultural capital,” that we use to stockpile prestige. Hating Céline is therefore not just an aesthetic choice, but an ethical one, a way to elevate yourself above her fans—who, according to market research, tend to be disproportionately poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores.
Fascinating stuff, though perhaps not ground-breaking. When we declare our music and reading tastes on public platforms like Facebook, we are not being honest; we are defining how we wish to be perceived (My friend Brendon gets into this on the introduction to his impeccably curated 25 Albums of 2007 List). What we profess to dislike is a clear statement of how we don’t want to be perceived. Take, for example, all the profiles that read, under Music, “Anything but country.” Now though it’s theoretically possible to hate all country music, it’s far more likely that such a profile is really saying, “Don’t associate me with the poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores.”
In closing, please note this fun fact:
If you hear Céline in Jamaica, run: Her music, blasted at high volume, has become sonic wallpaper in bad neighborhoods, according to music critic Garnette Codogan: “It became a cue to me to walk … faster if I was ever in a neighborhood I didn’t know and heard Céline Dion.”
Leave a Reply