You, my devoted reader, may have noticed the addition of a new page on this archive. Liking his “Battle of the Bindings” post from Gaurav’s new “blog”, I decided to adapt* the idea on a permanent basis. This decision is motivated by a pair of notions: first, it gives me the appearance of writing while exerting little effort, and next, there simply isn’t time enough to extensively review all the books which, between research and my haphazard reading habits, I read in a week.[i] At least if I record these works in a list, you, dear reader, can leave remarks, queries, or reviews. In my (admittedly absurd and extraordinarily narcissistic) imagination, my list will provide grounds for the germination of stunningly intellectual debates (at the very least it will act as a handy reference for those wishing to buy me gifts[ii]).
A third reason for this list, however, became apparent as I attempted to recall the works I had read in the last three months[iii]. This process was a bit unsettling. My “Books Digested” list, while containing a healthy 21 entries[iv], seems disproportionate to the the number of hours I’ve actually spent reading. Having no active employment until the fall term begins, yet possessing friends who work during the day, results in most of my daytime hours for the last fourteen weeks having been spent largely in the company of fictional characters and critics. Where then, did all those texts go?
Attempting to account for these lost texts, I started to think over the list of reading material I haven’t included in my list: single chapters from books (research), journal articles (more research), books I never intended to complete (short stories, essays, or poems from various anthologies), and books I’ve read before (none of Jonson’s or Shakespeare’s plays make the list, though I read As You Like It and The Magnetic Lady a few times each over the summer)[v]. Books I can’t remember reading, for obvious reasons, also don’t appear on the list.
This process of cataloguing (sort of) what I’ve read (or not) led me to muse over the sheer amount one actually reads in a day: my list obviously also does not include online reviews, newspapers, websites I frequent, my morning comics, articles I read while waiting in line or at the bus terminal, or emails.
If I extend the list further, I include directions on signs, directions on forms, bills, bank statements, advertisements, film subtitles, library receipts, other receipts, word-a-day calendars…
In my early modern textual collection class last year, I was astounded by the sheer amount of text (including textual ephemera) from surviving early modern documents available for study. Even limiting available material to the digitised copies of English texts from 1473-1700 available on EEBO, the database offers more than 118 500 pieces of material: another 5-10 years are expected to digitise the remaining available texts from 125 libraries contributing to the project.
I can hardly imagine the amounts of material offered by similar databases covering texts from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, or the medieval period, as well as online translations of continental, colonial, and classical literature. Yet this staggering amount of text is, I also imagine, dwarfed by the amount of both material and non-material texts produced in contemporary life: it seems unlikely that we possess the archival capacities to collect all the pamphlets, advertisements, magazines, movie tickets, bills, receipts, &c. produced every day, [vi] or to even list the text available on the seemingly non-spatially-limited internet.
Turning to an early modern example, literary critics have oft commented upon Montaigne’s essay “On Books,” and Montaigne’s faulty memory, and his habit of “noting at the end of every book — I mean those that I do not intend to read again — the date when I finished it and the opinion I had formed of it as a whole, my purpose being at least to remind myself of the character and general impression of the author that I had conceived when reading it (171-172). Considering Montaigne, in his 14-page essay, cites at least 34 authors he has read, it is easy to imagine that the plethora of material available bears some responsibility in causing Montaigne’s faulty memory.
Though Montaigne discusses the problem of studying history, stating that it is necessary for the student to “run through all sorts of authors, both old and new, in French and in gibberish, without distinction, to learn from them the various things they teach” (169), Montaigne also states, in the passage I have cited in my “Book Dossier,” “when I meet with difficulties in my reading, I do not bite my nails over them; after making one or two attempts, I give them up” (161). Good reading habits, then, involve a system of sifting through huge quantities of text and quickly deciphering what is good (well-written) and necessary, and what can be ignored or discarded.
How much more necessary is this skill now, when the quantities of translated, available literature/text produced vastly exceeds what is possible to read in a lifetime. Further, how (perhaps ironically) necessary it is to produce more text in the form of critical commentary which can serve as a means of illuminating the contents of a text and its quality, in order that other readers may “run through” our contemporary textual collection more easily (not that my list will do any of this, though it may help me, when fall term arrives, to recall what I’ve read, when, and for which class, a bit more easily). This necessity for critical commentary, as well as the ability to read skillfully also, I think, suggests the necessity for both literary critics and educators in the contemporary world.
Finally, and on a bit of a non-sequitor closing note, I occasionally wonder what I would do were I suddenly and catastrophically unable to read: I’m reassured, at least, that I have hobbies:
[i] in a week. Unless I were willing to quit work and general socialising, in which case the friends and colleagues with whom I often share my reviews would drop off considerably.
[ii] buy me gifts. This is, of course, me an example of the kind of narcissism this archive nurtures in my being.
[iii] three months. The list begins at the start of summer term: beyond this time, my memory of texts becomes a bit hazy, what with the usual end of term reading/writing panic.
[iv] 21 entries. Though half of these are under 200 pages.
[v] over the summer). Incidentally, Moby Dick falls under both the categories “books I didn’t intend to complete” and “books reread”. Being one of my favourite books, I like to reread chapters of it whenever I’m bored, ill, or when it is raining, as it has been most of this summer.
[vi] every day. Not that any time period has ever collected all ephemeral (or even non-ephemeral) texts: as much as EEBO has to offer, more frequently one crosses references to title and tracts which are irrevocably lost.
[vii] not to scale The monster eating the Globe Theatre is my guinea pig, Job. Note also, Sigmund Freud as Hamlet (he’s on stage alone, so I assume he’s delivering a soliloquy).
I am a sad little person.
Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” Essays. Trans. JM Cohen. London: Penguin, 1993. 159-173.
2 August 2008 ~ St. Catharines
Glossary of Terms:
adapt. v. See “steal”.