Reading as Mapping: Or, Who are the Well-Read? And Does Anyone Really Care?

My son is a seventh grader who plays up a grade on an eighth grade basketball team. They make the Bad News Bears look talented. I was talking with a friend whose daughter plays on a high school team that’s also been struggling, and I asked him if it was as bad as our eighth graders. “Worse,” he said, “because at least there’s hope.”

How true. With absolutely low expectations and little hope of victory, we can be thrilled when the eighth grade boys manage to keep the game within 30 points. By contrast, our boys’ high school basketball team has lost a dozen games by less than five points, and the girls’ team has played well below expectations, their dismal records depressing by virtue of what might have been.

I feel a little bit the same way about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.Despite my disparagement of Bayard in yesterday’s post, it’s fair to say that Bayard has 15 pages of very provocative insights. But his tendency to extend them to absurd extremes, to make mind-bending leaps of illogic without sufficient evidence, and his willingness to bury those insights beneath pages of mind-numbingly dull and uninventive reading—to say nothing of his generally flippant tone—leads me to dislike the book all the more despite the important things it might have to say. What might have been, I want to say. What might have been.

For me, Bayard raises the question of what we must mean when we imagine being well read—a class of persons that seems increasingly rarified and relatively unimportant, but which bears a residual level of cultural respect, if not capital, in any case. In America, the Well-Read are something like the British Royal family: ceremonial but without any real power.

Bayard points out that given the tens, the hundreds, of thousands of books that we could possibly imagine being worth reading, there is some literal sense in which all of us will have always read almost nothing at all. He tells the story from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities wherein the hero walks through a library of 3 and a half million books and realized that, were he to read a book a day, he would have to live ten thousand years to read them all. I am reminded of my favorite professor in college, Joe McClatchey, whom we saw walking across campus one day, a troubled look on his face. Asked what was wrong, he said with some intense sadness that he had just realized how many great books there were that he would never have the chance to read.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s dictum for Christians that in comparison to the love and wisdom of God, Christians must begin each day realizing they are starting over as infants. None of us is ever really well-read in this quantitative sense, and so being well-read means something other than or different than “reading everything” or even “reading a lot.” It has nothing, in fact, to do with an amount of reading whatsoever.

The traditional canonical arguments would suggest that it means reading “the best” that has been thought and written, while canonical revisionists would, of course, seek to change or alter what is contained on this list of “bests,” or else challenge and change what is meant by “best.” I am unimpressed by this quest for the right list of “bests”; even were we to agree on what the category entails, it seems to me there are too many very good books out there to read, even in the relatively narrow field defined problematically as “literature”–leave alone philosophy, history, theology, social theory, and etcetera–for us to ever imagine something like a comprehensive literacy.

Bayard takes things in an intriguingly different direction. Being well read is not a matter of what you read at all. Being well read is not a matter of assimilating a particular number of titles. Indeed, for Bayard, being well read has nothing to do with reading particular books at all. Instead, being well read is a function of understanding the relationships between books, an understanding that, once mastered, allows someone to place books with only the most cursory understanding of their contents.

To some degree with is a literacy of location—thus the title of this blog, reading as mapping. To read a single book is a little like examining the details of a single city block. I could read a hundred different titles on a great books list, but if I am only wrapped up in the reading of individual texts, what I will come away with is an intimate knowledge of 100 different city blocks.

For Bayard, by contrast, being well-read is not achieved through the intimate, rigorous, and close reading of discrete texts, but through understanding the map of texts, the way texts and their properties fit together, cohere, differ, contrast. As Bayard puts it:

“As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

“It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn’t read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject” (10-11)

Before questioning this, I want to affirm how very true it really is, and how important it might be for thinking through what we might mean by cultural literacy. I am often poignantly struck by students who come to me for a list of books they ought to read. I always tell them, read authors they like, and then read what those writers liked, and then read writers who liked those writers. I’m not quite saying the same thing as Bayard, but I am trying to suggest to students that reading a particular list of books is not going to be that helpful.

I think Bayard pushes me a little further here in making me see that I’m also trying to get students in to some kind of system of relationship between texts. Who influences whom, and why does it matter. This is one way of mapping—probably not a very good one. What professors know that students do not are not just individual texts. What professors know is how to read the maps of texts that students don’t even really comprehend exist. The championing of “native knowledges” and reading preferences of students as is common in some pedagogies is of limited use if we don’t see that we are leaving students impotent in understanding how maps of reading work in culture. How can they map their own preferences on to the map of literature—or, how can they challenge whatever maps currently exist.

In a particular sense it seems to me that what Bayard is doing is applying the insights of structural linguistics to the world of books. Imagine each book as a word. Understanding the word by itself is not important, and indeed, if a person only knew one word we justifiably and correctly call such a person an idiot (clinical definition, a person who can do only one thing or speak to only himself—kind of like writing this blog).

However, the structural linguists rightly point out that the meaning of any word is only functional within the entire system of words, and that it is important to understand the shape of that system, that discourse, in some ways more important to understand that than to understand discrete words themselves—a logical impossibility in the thinking of structural linguists since there is no word “in itself”. To apply a Wittgensteinian take on this rather than a structural linguistic take, we rightly note that the meaning of a word is in its use. We can often determine or broadly guess the meaning of a particular word we have never heard before by hearing the word in use, in a particular context. And in any case we come to understand a word not by getting definitions but by learning how the word is put in to use in the systems of language.

Bayard is saying something very similar about what it means to be culturally literate. Cultural literacy is not the grasping of lists of facts or texts—as E.D. Hirsch or Allan Bloom would have had it back in the 80s. Literacy is understanding how the system of books work so that, even when we have not read a particular book, we can determine without too much trouble its general place in the system of books as a whole.

On the whole, I think Bayard underplays the significance of reading particular texts, and the particular kind of sophistication that come through these local knowledges. Bayard’s assertions that it is more important to know the map than to have visited the locations on the map, bears a certain truth. But it’s not clear that a person who reads a map, but who has never seen a mountain or who has never walked through a city block, or who has never viewed the sea, can properly be said to understand a map at all.

Imagine a person who grows up in a closed room and is taught only to read maps, and he becomes thoroughly familiar with maps and the relationships between them. It’s not clear, however, that such a person can really read a map if, when taken out of his room, he cannot recognize a city street. Instead the person is merely reading hieroglyphics without any sense of the relationship of those hieroglyphics to the cultural life in which they are embedded. In other words, a certain level of extended close reading is necessary for the reading of book maps to make any sense at all. Reading of individual books is necessary to the possibility of reading maps in a way we simply take for granted. On the other hand, this having been said, it’s not clear we can really understand our own geography in the fullest ways possible, without understanding the ways that geography is related to other geographies.

In other words, we need to both read the maps and walk the streets. The relationship between the two elements is far more dynamic and interactive than Bayard seems to allow. The knowledge of individual books is only coherent by understanding how to map the book to a particular bookish geography. However, maps only make sense to us at all if we have some knowledge and understanding about at least some, and preferably many, individual books. We can only understand relationship through understanding things being related. Relationship itself, as Kierkegaard well understood, is the most abstract and insubstantial—yet unavoidable and necessary—of philosophical concepts. To get at the ways in which books relate, we have to grasp at least some things of book themselves.

Many more things to say here, but I think I’m going to stop for the night. Two main things on my mind. One, I think the multi-ethnic canon wars have often been fought over lists, and have thus been only marginally effective in challenging the most important thing: the way books are mapped. While we read a few new books, we mostly haven’t changed our understanding of how books relate to each other. We haven’t changed the map; we’ve just added heretofore-unacknowledged trees and rocky outcroppings, while leaving the basic contours of the geographic spaces of literature untouched. Second, and it might be related, but I’m not sure. I think we still do a better job of communicating to undergraduates the importance of the close reading of discrete texts than we do the importance of relationship between texts. Students come away with a strong sense of reading, but not a strong sense of how to map books in their experience.

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3 thoughts on “Reading as Mapping: Or, Who are the Well-Read? And Does Anyone Really Care?

  1. Numbers and quality do count. being well-read is not about memory it’s about the influence that such reading has had upon one. Books of significance read with insight affect the navigation of one’s thoughts. To steer an intelligent course through life one must have recourse to consult the maps of judgement that great books en-compass.

  2. Pingback: Treasure Island, Buried « Read, Write, Now

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