Several things stood out for me from Stephen Ramsay’s essay “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books.” The most significant of them was the fascination with where is the anxiety to read everything coming from. Ramsay says it started in the 15th century, around the time of the introduction of the Gutenberg press to Europe. Since then, there have been many philosophers who agonized over the ever-growing number of books that they could not possibly read. Referencing Margaret Cohen and what she calls “the great unread,” Ramsay pokes fun at the way we talk about the literary canon and its supposed inclusivity and representation of the field: “But in the end, arguments from the standpoint of popularity satisfy neither the canoniclast nor the historian. The dark fear is that no one can really say what is “representative” because no one has any basis for making such a claim.”
Ramsay proposes different options. He quotes Martin Mueller and his suggestion to “stop reading” once you’ve identified the location of the book in the network of transactions “that involve a reader, his interlocutors, and a ‘collective library’ of things one knows or is supposed to know.” Responding to Mueller’s quote, I jotted down in bright blue pen “but don’t you miss nuance!?” On my second reading of Ramsay’s essay, I noted, “What is the point of reading—is it to just locate the book in the network of transactions and to talk about it to others or is it to learn and enjoy?” Is intricate detail of a human story of any interest to us when we read only up to the point of locating the books in its network of transactions? For example, once we learn that the lead character Sally has favorable chances of hooking up with her object of affection Mary, then should we just stop reading?
Another option is to read books from compilations such as “Top 100 novels of all time.” And although the feasibility of canon is questionable, many do follow these lists as a way to combat this anxiety of missing out. So much so, that NPR run a story titled “You Can’t Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying” where the guest Linda Holmes recommended strategies and coping techniques. But I have a question. Whom do we regard as authority over what makes it on the canon? In class, a colleague bought up that editors do the sorting for us when they accept or refuse manuscripts. But who are the editors and what are their standpoints and biases? Following the network associations, are the manuscripts closest to culturally dominant network of transactions more likely to become books?
Yet another option is Franco Moretti’s approach to simultaneous reading of thousands of novels assisted by computer technology. Except that there won’t be reading per se, but counting, graphing, and mapping. Since we cannot read even a fraction of all the books out there, why not analyze them and see what stands out? Matthew Jokers also came up with a way to identify “six, or possibly seven, archetypal plot shapes.” Although his methods were questioned on the public forum, his laborious attempt at condensing thousands of novels into six or seven plotlines demonstrates the strength of desire for reading it all. I wonder, are these questions being brought up by folks who have been around prior to ubiquity of computers and actually read many books cover to cover, so now they don’t mind missing out on the nuance?
Then again, why is there so much anxiety over reading it all? The shame of being “caught unaware” of a book’s plot while mingling over wine and hors-d’oeuvres? Because if it was to achieve a shared knowledgebase for meaningful participation on the public square, then wouldn’t reading the books in K-12 and college be sufficient? Nowadays it seems most of our knowledge comes in the form of visual media or lists of top things curated by BuzzFeed or our Facebook network.
Ramsay eloquently concludes, “Your ethical obligation is neither to read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all….” but to appreciate the process of discovery. Agreed!