How to read books you’ll never talk about

As someone who was a master of the fine art of B.S. in High School and college*, this book– “How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read”–ought to be right up my alley. Or a manual for all sorry Columbia freshmen currently slogging their way through Lit Hum. (Buck up, guys, it gets better in second semester.)

But, actually, the whole idea makes me a little depressed. Surely reading isn’t only a social exercise? It’s the kind of attitude that made me despise Lit Hum (aside from the whole Core Curriculum being racist thing). The thought that as long as we read and were vaguely familiar with the themes of these forty or so works, we could slide by in sophisticated cocktail parties for the rest of our lives. Oh, sure, you should maybe supplement it with a cursory exploration of James Joyce or Philip Roth, but as long as you knew Thucydides and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, no one would guess you had a weakness for Louis L’amour novels.

This is lame. Reading is an activity to enjoy, not to wield like bludgeon at social gatherings. I’ve been reading a great deal of books this month and sometimes I swear that nothing makes me happier than going into a tizzy over a book. Off the top of my head, this is what I’ve read so far in October:

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson
A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson
A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson
Indiscretion by Jude Morgan
The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia
Firethorn by Sarah Micklem

I’m all for cultivating your B.S. muscles (especially in academic settings), but don’t lose sight of the fact that literature is designed for stimulation and wonder and–of course– pleasure. I love reading books. Most of the books I read I rarely discuss with other people. They’re personal pleasures. Though, since I’m here anyway, I had a real run of luck this month and I liked every book on that list. I recommend the Westerfeld books, Firethorn and Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson in particular (I know I didn’t read that this month, but it’s her best adult novel). The NY Times review put this very eloquently:

At the risk of sounding like the fusty old crank everyone does impressions of in the faculty lounge, I still believe in the private ecstasy of reading. It’s one thing to jockey for social position by saying that Dostoyevsky introduced psychology into the novel, or that Chaucer had a fuller grasp of humanity than Shakespeare. It’s another thing to experience, with your full attention, Raskolnikov wandering feverishly around St. Petersburg, or the young scholar farting in the face of his romantic rival in “The Miller’s Tale.” Real reading is not just hoarding fodder for cocktail chatter, it’s crawling, phrase by phrase, through a text and finding yourself surprised or disappointed or ruined or bored with every other line. This direct connection—the voice that enters your brain and mingles with your own internal voice—is the only way books really matter, and experiencing it requires a kind of deep surprise at the words in front of you.

See, doesn’t that make you feel better? B.S. The Decameron. But read something you enjoy.

* Just one example, since I can’t resist. My sophomore year I took a class in Victorian literature, which sounded far more interesting than it actually was. A major problem was that my teacher seemed to be under the impression that no females had ever written anything of note during the entire Victorian period, despite, you know, probably the most famous poet of the age being female. But, like, whatevs. So I was editing the college paper at the time and I was not inclined to bust my ass getting to a 1pm class three days a week. Don’t say anything. When you go to sleep at 5am and have to commute in from Yonkers, 1pm requires busting ass. So I attended precisely THREE classes. One to turn in the first essay (oh, how I love essays written on poems), one to turn in the supposed “final” essay that would determine our grade, and one to receive that final essay and learn that actually we were going to have an exam. In a week. I had not bought a single book for the class. In the classes I attended, I worked on my Japanese homework. I was, to put it delicately, unprepared. And since I was so unprepared, I didn’t even bother trying to get a little less unprepared, just on general principle. So you know that nightmare where you realize you have to take an exam, but you’ve never even attended the class, let alone studied for it? Well, that actually happened to me. There were three essay questions about six different Victorian writers. The only one I had ever heard of was Robert Browning. I wrote three essays about the work of six men with whom my only familiarity was that my teacher had chosen to discuss them in class. It was the B.S. Olympics. I defy anyone to say so little of substance while appearing to say so much (the secret: allusions, allusions, allusions). Anyway, I ended up with an A- in the class. I wonder what the hell he thought of that exam. Maybe he took pity on me?

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7 thoughts on “How to read books you’ll never talk about

  1. but…but..The Decameron is AMAZING! It’s so funny and well versed. No one in the world had a stronger BS muscle than proust.

    An abbess gets woken in the middle of the night being told that one of her nuns has a lover with her! The abbess does not light a candle to dress bc she does not want the nuns to know that SHE has a priest in bed with her. Flustered, she accidentally puts the priest’s pants on her head as a bonnet:

  2. Alaya says:

    Well, just goes to show you that there must be some reason why those books were on the Lit Hum curriculum. Maybe I’ll try it again. I tend to work better when someone isn’t forcing me to read a book anyway 🙂

    (btw, something happened to the other comment you tried to leave. It was all garbled so I deleted it.)

  3. There’s a new translation out that is very literal and very hilarious (by an Irish guy, who knew?) It’s the funniest but the one that is easiest to read is the Signet classic. The end of that story is that the Abbess gets caught and decides that the nuns can take lovers if they are discreet. The victorian translations say something like “And the nuns with lovers returned to their beds and the nuns with lovers wished for what they didn’t have.” But the real Italian is a little less Puritan than that:

    “She and the abbess returned to their beds, the latter with the priest and the former with her lover. She thenceforth arranged for him to visit her at frequent intervals, undeterred by the envy of those of her fellow nuns, without lovers, who consoled themselves in secret as best they could.”

    Nuns jerking off. How can you go wrong with a story like that? Oh, you could rip the source material from my research and destroy it with a Micha Barton movie.

  4. I can’t believe I forgot to say this:

    (ahem)

    “Alaya, if you want to talk about books you haven’t read you should just go into publishing.”

    (Ba-dum CHING!)

  5. Alaya says:

    Ha ha. Been there, done that, actually.

  6. […] to be a writer? Especially if you want to be a better writer? I got thinking about this as I read How to Read Books You’ll Never Talk About in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s blog open vein, write story. ADJ is crackling and opinionated and […]

  7. One more terrible commend from brendan:
    Harold Bloom’s “How to Read and Why” is BASICALLY “How to read these guys and then I’ll make you believe why.” It made me love proust!

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