Book Anxiety

I’ve blogged before “Too much to read, too little time” noting references picked-up during the reading I do manage to achieve – a reading list growing faster than the pace of possible reading. Not uncommon apparently – here a 1989 paper from David Lavery – “How to Gut a Book“.

Here quoting Thomas Wolfe’s, Eugene Gant

The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad; the more he read, the less he seemed to know”the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be.

Here, Lavery’s concluding paragraphs …

Book gutters, I would suggest, understand the book as an evolutionary phenomenon; we see them as repositories of memes. We crack them open in search of the memes encapsulated within.

When asked how it was that Native Americans were able to discover”without the aid of modern science”the medicinal properties of hundreds of indigenous herbs and plants, the Shoshone healer Rolling Thunder explained that the secret was quite simple: a medicine man addressed the plant and asked it, in the “I and thou” dialogue of his “concrete science,” what it was good for, what power it contained. We must learn, without embarrassment, to do the same with books.

Andrei Codrescu has suggested that we need to learn to

“use books as oracles.
Ask them a question: open them up.”

The same David Lavery, Owen Barfield scholar,  recommended by Pirsig for his Descartes “Evil Genius” project. Though that project blogged earlier, seems to have disappeared from his Mid Tennessee State Uni pages (He is currently at Brunel, London.) Here is the Descartes Evil Genius project on his current site. 

Anyway, back to the “book anxiety” piece … it has everything. American Indians, immediate experience, memes, Nietzsche, Borges, Escher, Voltaire, Mortimer Adler’s University of Chicago “Aristotelian pontifications” to add to the Pirsig and Barfield connections. Excellent read, to get reading in perspective. I may never sneer again at those “airport bookstall” summaries of the latest “essential reading”. 

Interestingly, different experiences but similar circumstances in reading Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” and “Investigations” recently, both in an effort to read, in the original, people about who’m I’d already formed the opinion I needed, yet felt the guilt of not having read. As I already suspected, Rand had nothing worth saying; I already “knew” what Wittgenstein had to say, great though he was. Not so arrogant after all ?

In a similar vein after quoting Mark Twain

“School keeps getting in the way of my education”

and Voltaire

“The multitude of books, is making us ignorant.”

and Barthes

“After all, no author can choose to write what will not be read. It is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives; has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.)”

Thinking about writing myself, I have often wondered about a “tiered book”

The essential messages in a few paragraphs / pages, preceeding a longer treatise developing the arguments on the subject, preceeding a narrative / novel incorporating the message and its arguments. Why insult the reader’s intelligence ? I guess Pirsig was following the same line in making his “Chautauqua” (public lecture) explicit rather than unnecessarily hidden within ZMM and Lila. (Of course the flaw is that I may never have the skills to write the third part … but as a joint venture ? Love to do that with Lavery’s Evil Genius plot idea in fact.)

Another aspect Lavery discusses is scanning texts for epigraphic quotations … something I also do, in many cases as potential book or chapter sub-titles … though I gather so many that I long since stopped explicitly blogging them all. Perhaps I should re-start ? Actually, Lavery cites Owen Barfield as the source of his book gutting concept. If Pirsig’s Phaedrus was outflanking the entire body of western thought, Barfield’s Burgeon was raiding it in “Unancestral Voice”.

Who says you need to read all relevant philosophers in order to have a valid philosophic opinion ? Pirsig’s idea of the philosophologist as “critic”, but not philosopher seems validated.

Ah, and of course, in the footnotes a reference to Stanislaw Lem. Taking the “forget writing the book, just write your own review” idea to new Hofstadterian, Quinish proportions; write a book of collected reviews of imagined books. Summaries of the books you haven’t the time to write, let alone read. Make the book the subject of the book. A book-sized Quine. Brilliant. I already knew I liked Lem.

David Lavery’s “How to Gut a Book” is the most though-provoking read I’ve come across in a long time.

7 thoughts on “Book Anxiety”

  1. ian,
    When you say you “already “knew” what Wittgenstein had to say” do you mean (a) you already were familiar with what Wittgenstein had to say or (b) you already knew that what Wittgenstein had to say was true?

  2. Good question …

    I guess I’m saying I was already familiar due to so many second hand readings and references and that I already believed what he had to say.

  3. ian,
    If you ever go back to reading Wittgenstein & you don’t read German, I suggest “The Blue and Brown Books”, since they (unlike the two works you mentioned) were originally in English.

  4. In light of this post, you’ll enjoy:

    the growing brouhaha over pierre bayard’s new book Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus (How to Talk about Books that You Haven’t Read)

    If you’re interested, Galley Cat has other links at

  5. BTW craig, my reference to in the original was referring to first-hand rather than second hand reading, not to reading in original German language.

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