Thursday, 31 January 2008

More on books!

Really, I wanted to use this blog to write about the way academic work fits into a life, and I don't seem quite to be able to find a way of publicly writing about that yet. So I'm going to write about books again this week, and think about life for next week...

I don't think I'm going to enjoy The Greeks and Greek Love as much as I'd hoped, sadly, but it is going to be pretty relevant to the Derrida piece, if only because I'm going to be using some S/M theory in that and James Davidson is very cross about the idea that Greek men could have anything in common with 20th-century gay S/M practice, so I might have some fun engaging with that.

Incidentally, on the topic of reappraising ancient same-sex practices, isn't this call for papers like an example of How Not To 'Include' Lesbians? Here's a representative section, consisting of a quote specifically about male-male sex, followed by an unargued assertion that 'the same goes for lesbians too, I expect': Henning Bech (When Men Meet: Homosexuality and Modernity [1997]) has the following to say: “one should be on the lookout for a possible huge variety of meanings, reasons and pleasures associated with being penetrated: experimentation, prodigality, joy, submission, ecstasy, dirt, sociality, love, and so on” (256). This is equally true for both male and female homoeroticism. Well, yeah, maybe, but it's hard to tell when you only cite sources (both ancient and modern) which are exclusively about men. (It reminds me of the moment in the Queer Spaces conference last year when someone, in a really revealing slip-of-the-tongue attempt at inclusiveness, talked about 'gay and lesbian men'. Gay and lesbian men! I think we've covered everyone there!)

Anyway, back to books. The unexpected star of my latest book acquisitions has been How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I haven't, in fact, read it yet (and so am caught in a Doctor-Who/analytic-philosophy-style paradox), but listen to this (found by opening the book at random). He's talking about a 'realm of communication about books' which 'might be characterized as a virtual library, both because it is a space dominated by images (images of oneself, in particular) rather than books and because it is not a realm based in reality. It is subject to a number of rules whose goal is to maintain it as a consensual space in which books are replaced by fictions of books. It is also a realm of play, not unlike that of childhood or of the theater...'

In the intellectual circles where writing still counts, the books we have read form an integral part of our image, and we call that image into question when we venture to publicly announce our inner library's limits.

In this cultural context, books - whether read or unread - form a kind of second language to which we can turn to talk abou tourselves, to communicate with others, and to defend ourselves in conflict. Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality...

... [The virtual library] is the opposite of school - a realm of violence driven by the fantasy that there exists such a thing as thorough reading, and a place where everything is calibrated to determine whether the students have truly read the books about which they speak and face interrogation. Such an aim is, in the end, illusory, for reading does not obey the hard logic of true and false, of waving off ambiguity and evaluating with certainty whether readers are telling the truth.

Isn't that great? Since I started thinking about reading seriously in 1999, when I did my MA, I've always wanted to theorize the ways we read without reading, but never quite made a start on it, but it looks like Pierre Boyard has done so for me - and isn't it lovely? Clever and pretty and serious and playful.

(Pierre Boyard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (London: Granta, 2007), pp.125, 128-9.)

1 comment:

nixwilliams said...

oh, i picked up that book in readings the other day, and wanted to buy it . . . and then had to run and meet someone. so i'll definitely purchase it sooooooon!