If one thinks of reading as a positive, then it has to have its negative. Let’s call this antithesis a non-reading. Although for anyone who likes to read this counterpart may often constitute a significant portion of their reading life, it remains largely unexamined.
And perhaps that’s only fair: we discuss, we review, we criticise and what have you, but we do so relating to the books we read, not those we did not. We talk about our reading, not about our non-reading. But what if we did? Is there anything to discover if we would, for a moment, redirect our gaze towards all this that we do not, did not, have not?
A book I have recently been non-reading was Extinction by Thomas Bernhard. I have been non-reading it, actively, for a prolonged period of time, despite its persistent presence on my night shelf. Extinction was there, on top of the to-read pile, up for grabs, ready. It was not that I did not want to read it, quite the opposite: I had invested a significant number of hours—and DK Kroners—to put my hands on a beautiful Faber&Faber copy and as long as it had still been immaterial, still just about to arrive, I was adamant I would begin the moment it shows up. Yet, once it did, I realised that, strangely, I could not get myself to it. In a sense, I was not ready. Perhaps, deep down, familiar with other Bernhards, I feared it: its language, its density, its resistance. I was fascinated, but I feared it would be an effort, verging, perhaps, on suffering.
Another book I non-read is Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity by Gerald Raunig. A tiny, white-covered beauty from semiotext(e) intervention series, an analysis of the crisis that currently holds academia in its grip. Here, prospects too were rather good: a relevant subject plus a copy at-hand added up to a promising combination. And yet: I began; I made it about halfway through; I gave up. I was not ready, though in a manner different from the one preventing me from opening Bernhardt. This time, it was the lingo that arrested me, Deleuzian—as I was informed by those versed in D&G—nomenclature, which transformed English into an arcane and inaccessible argot. I still have not read it.
A book I am currently non-reading is This Little Art by Kate Briggs. Or not exactly. I am reading it but the gaps in the process are so extended and their occurrence so frequent, that it’s more accurate to call this ostensible reading a non-reading. I enjoy the book—a personal reflection on translation set off by the process of translating Roland Barthes’s final lecture course The Preparation of The Novel from French to English—very much. I have a copy, I am ready. And yet I can barely open it and I struggle to read it. I am in the process of non-reading This Little Art, punctuated by the brief moments of actual lecture. In this case it is the world, that intervenes: I have to work, sleep, move house, meeting here, meet there, there is a game tonight, the floor needs vacuuming, I am so tired, I doze off.
A piece of conversation, a mention in passing, a quote, a question at the bookstore: suddenly they will not longer be abstractions but will materialise and enter the space of a relevant non-reading, of one that matters, of an omission that makes a difference.
Yet another book I have non-read is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I realised that this is the case while non-reading Briggs, who opens her essay with a commentary to the scene from Mann’s book. I realised this, to my surprise, because—strangely enough—I read it. I did, at some point, back in the day, but long ago enough to find myself currently positively puzzled to (re-)discover in This Little Art that the name of a character, a prominent one, was Clavdia Chauchat. Hans Castorp, at least, still rings a bell, but his story is now but a mist. There was tuberculosis, a snowstorm, learned disputes between his learned friends, blankets on the terrace. No, I realise, The Magic Mountain inconspicuously turned into a book I, for all intents and purposes, have not read.
The book I will non-read soon is X by Z. It is one of those—counted in thousands, millions perhaps—that I do not even know exists, neither the author nor the book. Yet, I take this stunning numbers lightly, much lighter that the few omissions I had just reflected upon. If I do, it is because there is a certain specific disconnectedness between this abstract immensity and me. As total strangers, the books I do not know do not even enter the horizon of my reading landscape. (That is, not unless I forcefully speculate them—as I am doing it here—into the picture.) For the most part, to me, as a rader, they remain what they are: an abstract possibility with no direct relevance, lacking the sense of urgency; hypothetical and ineffective. I can acknowledge their existence, but cannot take it seriously.
Until one day, one way or the other, someone or some force will implant this or that title into my landscape. A piece of conversation, a mention in passing, a quote, a question at the bookstore: suddenly they will not longer be abstractions but will materialise and enter the space of a relevant non-reading, of one that matters, of an omission that makes a difference. And with that happening, this un-read book will suddenly have more in common with the books I have read (they all matter) than with this endless depository of hypothetical reads (they do not). If I can call a book X and the author Z here with such ease it is because they do not tell me anything. The point of contact is missing—the trajectories do not coincide. Such books do not matter because they cannot do so—not until the moment comes: a piece of conversation, a mention in passing, etc. A difference then, one more pressing that the one between the read and un-read: between what is relevant and what is not.
Did non-reading, then, tell us anything about reading? Perhaps yes, in that it revealed a distinction between the tangible significance and the immaterial abstraction. Taking a look at the shadow of the non-reading we are offered a chance to discover something about that which casts it: reading is always already nested in our lives and is thus characterised by a sense of urgency, one that nevertheless often remains transparent as long as we scrutinise only those books we know. This is the urgency of our investment. It is an urgency of a peculiar, inconspicuous sort: as long as we focus on the positive of reading, we do not notice this discreet quality, pretty much the same way we do not notice the oxygen we breath as long as it is not lacking. It is when we look away that we can best catch a glimpse of this hidden element, the premise upon which our reading life depends, one which is perhaps not much, but shall nevertheless not be overlooked: the books we read do matter.
Extinction by Thomas Bernhard
Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity by Gerald Raunig
This Little Art by Kate Briggs
The Preparation of The Novel by Roland Barthes
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann