Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Reading List

When someone asked me, after [Asa and Shyama's] presentation at the Babel session at the Zoo, what I was going to submit to the blog, my first response was to blush deeply, for there are many and many screw-ups I might own up to and I am not entirely sure I want them out there in the blogosphere, given some painful recent experiences that have made me more than ordinarily self-doubting. However, this one is a classic, and since I repeat it on a regular basis, I feel it is my signature fumble; admitting to not having read something everyone else has read (or claims to have read).
So, it’s 1994 or thereabouts. I am in graduate school. I live in a bungalow with two other grad students, one in history, one a fellow art historian. We throw awe-inspiring parties where Comp Lit grad students end up overcoming their disciplinary aversions and sleeping with Political Science grad students, and the shrubbery is full of underpants, wine bottles, and other such items in the morning. It is my housemates’ fabulousness (and trust funds) that make this all possible. I view these parties as a form of penitential suffering; I really hate it when other people use my bedroom for their dangerous liaisons.
Also, some of the other grad students are Horrible People. I am standing in the garden, holding a beer and having one of those screamed conversations you have at loud parties. The funny, handsome, and arrogant N says, “I hate it when people in grad seminar pretend to have read something they obviously haven’t read.” I nod and agree.  He says, “I make it a policy just to announce that I haven’t read it. If they have a problem with that, they’re posers and snobs.” I nod and agree some more, and then I shout, “Exactly. I think we should all go around and admit what we haven’t read, and just get it over with.” G, who is in Rhetoric, raises her beer, as if this is a toast, and announces, “I haven’t read Of Grammatology.” This sounds radical and daring – remember that G is in Rhetoric and it’s the early nineties at Berkeley. N the good looking and already-published in Representations says, “I haven’t read anything by Norman Mailer.” Well, I have and I am tempted to flaunt it by saying, “Don’t bother.” Instead, fool that I am, I chime in, “I haven’t read Kant.” 
The conversation stops. The entire party stops. Silence absorbs my confession.
N, smiling, looks at me pityingly. “I wouldn’t announce that, if I were you.”
G, miming utter shock, not smiling. “But you’re an art historian, right?”
I always make my students read (some) of Critique of Judgment now in my MFA proseminar, thus inoculating them against this particular form of the fumble, but it’s inevitable. As Hugh of St.-Victor observed, “There are those who wish to read everything. Do not try to do this. Let it alone. The number of books is infinite, and you cannot follow  infinity.”
Alexa Sand, Utah State University

1 comment:

  1. That Hugh of St.-Victor was a wise chap! I love this post, Alexa - thanks for sharing!