Episode 11

This is episode 11 of No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. Remember that this podcast is meant to be used with the interactive transcript available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. The transcript contains annotations on difficult vocabulary as well as Quizlet flashcard sets for self-study so that you can commit this vocabulary to memory and become a more fluent and articulate English speaker. From the podcast episode page you can subscribe to receive bonus monthly review materials. For daily videos follow me on Instagram at BetterLanguageLearning.

Today I’m working with notes, but not a complete script. Up until now I’ve scripted all of the episodes and to be honest, I’m not always happy with the result because I basically feel like I come across a bit unnatural. I don’t sound quite like myself. I’m used to teaching students and having people in front of me and interacting with them, and obviously in the podcast I don’t have that as I’m all alone here, so I’m going to be working with a slightly different format today and we’ll see how it goes.

So if you notice, my style is a bit more meandering, that is, I go from one thing to another and it may not be immediately clear what my point is. Well, bear with me. This is basically the way I would be if you had me in a classroom. So, without further ado, as we say, let’s begin. 

I’ve been thinking about the idea of being well-read. In English, we talk about a person being well-read to suggest that they’ve read a lot of books on a wide range of subjects, and the assumption is that someone who’s well-read is knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects. And I was thinking how this adjective for someone, to say someone is well-read, it sounds almost quaint nowadays. It sounds a bit old-fashioned because it assumes – because we wouldn’t say that someone is well-read if they’ve read every single Harry Potter book and every single, I don’t know, 50 Shades and so on. 

The underlying assumption is that someone who’s well-read has read widely among a predetermined group of books. I talked in a previous episode about the so-called canon, so when we talk about the Western canon a bit pompously as if in the Western world, which is a very nebulous concept, so in European societies that there are certain books that we all agree are great works of art and that everyone should read. Now, for good reasons in recent years people have called into question the very idea that we can have a canon, but what’s happened is that we’ve kind of thrown out the baby with the bathwater, which means we’ve gotten rid of the good with the bad. 

There are lots of reasons to question the idea of a canon, but to completely abolish it, to do away with it, is, I think, also dangerous for its own reasons, so we’re going to explore this today. 

I was thinking about, well, if someone is well-read again, it’s a question of, well, according to whom? Who, who says which books are important to read? Well, that’s up for debate

You can find and for this podcast, I looked up lists, you can find lots of lists of so-called must read books. For instance, I came up with one, I found one, rather, in The Guardian online and it’s about 100 best nonfiction books over the last 500 years. If you take a look at this list which you can see by clicking on the link, I’m including in the transcript, you’ll see that. It’s heavily skewed in favour of  male writers, white male writers, perhaps heterosexual – I don’t know. We could say this is problematic. Also, they’re all people who wrote in English – that excludes a huge amount of great writing and great thinking. 

Having said this, as a sort of caveat, I’m acknowledging that this list is very limited or problematic, as I scanned the list, there are a lot of fantastic books on the list, and interestingly, I haven’t read any of the authors or very few to be honest, I have read a couple, so a couple that are on the list. If you’re wondering, a couple of people that I think are worth knowing about, for instance, who are not necessarily dead white men. 

For instance, a couple of people that I noticed on the list I found very interesting. Rachel Carson, who wrote about ecology and what she thought was an impending ecological collapse back in 1962. Germaine Greer in the early 70s. The Female Eunuch, a pioneering work of feminism, John Maynard Keynes, a very important economist who influences decision making to this day. James Baldwin, a Black American writer who wrote about his experience as a Black man in America. He was also gay, now so I think sometimes people who suggest that the canon is not open to people who don’t fit this one stereotype, that only dead white men are included in the canon. Well, I think that’s a bit of a straw man argument. A straw man argument is when you want to criticise someone, you will often simplify their arguments. 

You will take away any valid points that your opponent might have to make it easier when you criticise them, to make them – their argument – seem weak. So I think sometimes the arguments against the canon are a straw man argument. Because I think a lot of people who recommend certain books do so consciously aware, fully aware, that any list is imperfect and deeply problematic. And yet we still need them. 

As I was thinking about this concept of being well-read, I remembered a book I’d heard of a couple of years ago, and it’s called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and the author is Pierre Bayard. He’s a psychiatrist and professor of literature. He’s French. I read a review of his book by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian. Hilary Mantel is a very well-known British author, quite famous.

In her review, she points out, she basically summarises his ideas and also engages with them, and criticises or critiques them, and one of the things that she points out is that this book talks about what does it actually mean to have read a book? For instance, if you’ve skimmed it, that’s it. That is, if you’ve gone over it not too carefully, not reading it thoroughly, maybe skipping pages and so on. 

Well, if you’ve only skimmed it, for instance, or if you’ve only read a few chapters, can you say that you’ve read that book? Or what if you read the entire book, but it was a long time ago? Does that reading expire once you’ve forgotten what you’ve read? 

She also points out another of his interesting arguments, that we always think of, or rather, we tend to think of reading as a solitary activity. And yet, as Bayard highlights, it actually exists in a social context, so we may have heard about people around us talking about a book so much that it’s almost as if we’ve read the book. I mean, Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet. 

I was in a meeting today and a colleague of mine and I were joking and we remembered this line together and we said, ah, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. That’s a line from the play, which suggests that there’s something wrong in a situation. There’s corruption. There’s a lack of honesty. And when was the last time she or I read Hamlet years and years ago? Maybe. I think I have read it. 

I don’t know. Maybe she hasn’t, but the point is, it doesn’t really matter. We have absorbed these ideas from the play, perhaps without ever having read the play or seen it. So the idea is that books can exist in our imagination without us ever having read the book in question. 

And Bayard is not saying that this is a bad thing. He’s very playful. The idea of liberating yourself from the pressure to read books in their entirety, and the idea that. We shouldn’t feel oppressed by our reading lists, or if we put down a book and don’t finish it, we shouldn’t have a sense that that’s not a valid experience. 

Hopscotch: a playful metaphor for reading

And this reminded me of a time back when I was studying literature about 20 years ago. I was doing my master’s in Spanish literature, and I had to submit an essay and give a presentation on a book in a Latin American literature course, and we were reading Rayuela, which is translated as Hopscotch, by an author called Julio Cortázar. And interestingly Rayuela, which is the game which in English we call hopscotch, was designed by Cortázar rather playfully, in a way that, at the beginning of the book, he instructs the reader to treat the chapters like you would treat as if you were playing a game of hopscotch. So the idea is that you could hop from one chapter to another and his point is that you don’t have to read the book in a linear way. And it’s the idea that the reader has this power to choose and has some power over their own reading, and the way they read. So I think Cortázar and Bayard would have a really interesting discussion if Cortázar were still around. 

So anyway, back to my assignment – the clock was ticking. I hadn’t finished my assignment and I had to speak in front of my classmates and. I finally got down to reading. If you are familiar with Rayuela, this book is incredibly long. It’s a very long book and so I ended up coming across a chapter which was really significant. Basically what I did is – I cheated. 

There was no way I was going to get anywhere near finishing the book, and I read these few pages from one chapter which seemed really important to me and so I thought, well this episode in the book seems to be kind of emblematic, kind of represented the bigger ideas from the book. So I basically decided to present my ideas just referring to this one episode and I kind of fudged it.. This means I didn’t say to the professor or to my classmates “I haven’t finished the book.” What I did is I said “I’m going to focus on this passage because it’s so important” and I don’t think I was wrong, but I was also being a bit opportunistic. 

Anyway, in the end, I really enjoyed the task and I got a very good mark on the assignment and now that I think about it, maybe I was putting into practice what Bayard is saying that, indeed we can read [only] part of a book and that doesn’t necessarily make that experience invalid. Now I’m not trying to make an argument for reading fewer books, and I don’t think Bayard is either, although I have to admit I actually haven’t read Bayard. I’ve read interviews with him. I’ve read this review by Hilary Mantel. 

And that’s the wonderful thing about books, is that we can actually have a relationship with a book, we can know about a book without having read it, and so I actually think maybe to build on Bayard’s ideas, maybe to be well-read, we have to be less obsessed with reading lots of books first-hand. We need to be more curious about finding out about books, finding out about the ideas and how can we do this? 

Now, one service that’s become very popular in recent years that you’ve probably heard about, advertised on the Internet is something called Blinkist, and they sell these short capsules. They’re 15 minute summaries of books and most of the books I think are in the realm of business and personal development if I’m not mistaken.

I have a lot of issues with the Blinkist approach because I think we actually have a solution to this problem of “how do we find out about books without having to read them all?”, and that is by reading book reviews. I think book reviews, which have existed for a long time, are actually far superior to these so-called innovative apps like Blinkist. 

I’ve talked about long-form journalism in previous episodes such as the TLS, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Economist. These are just a couple of examples. Traditionally serious publications, and I’m saying serious, somewhat well, you know with air quotes, because what nowadays people might question what counts as a serious publication, I would say there are serious publications and you should be reading them and the TLS and The Economist are examples of them. 

I don’t necessarily adhere to all of the political views of The Economist. The Economist is very much pro free market and so their political, there definitely is a political slant, and yet I still think it’s an excellent publication. And I think people who, let’s say are social activists and are very critical of capitalism as it is now, need to be acquainted with what people who don’t agree with them are reading. Even in The Economist you’ll find excellent book reviews and I was talking with my mother about this and saying how I think, it seems almost obvious that, to me at least, that book reviews are a really important way of learning about books that we don’t have time to read. 

And I realised that actually I think a lot of students don’t have a sense of what a book review is. 

I think a lot of students think that a book review is like a book report, which is a kind of assignment, sometimes we ask students to do when they’re in public school – in elementary school or secondary school where you just summarise the main points of a book. 

And that’s not at all what book review is, in the sense that I’m talking about. The kind of thing you’d find in the TLS, for instance, a book review is not just a synthesis, it’s not just a summary of the ideas, but it’s also someone else engaging with those ideas and reflecting on them critically. For instance, what the TLS does amazingly well, I think anyone who is studying or interested in the humanities or literature, the TLS is a goldmine because not only do they have excellent book reviews. Often they will often get their reviewers to review a group of books that have come out around around the same period. To review a couple of books together that are related to the same topic and I’ll give an example back again from my student days as a student of literature.

I remember I was planning to focus on Spanish literature from Spain. I did do some Latin American literature, but my plan was to go on and do a PhD in Peninsular studies, so focusing on things written by authors from Spain. 

And so obviously the Spanish Civil War loomed large in my imagination. There are lots of books and movies and other pieces of art. Think of Picasso’s Guernica, the famous painting. Lots of thought has gone into this conflict. It’s kind of like, you know, just the way the Second World War has generated a lot of art. 

A reproduction in tilework of Picasso’s Guernica.

And, to be honest, a lot of the discussions I’d seen about the civil war were very simplistic. The idea was that the Republicans were entirely in the right and that Franco was this evil figure. And that was that there was no – I’m not not suggesting that I’m pro-Franco by any stretch of the imagination, but anyway, back to the TLS. 

That was the first time I’d come across it, and I found a book review in which two or three different books to do with the Civil War written by professional historians, so basically it was the first time that I was exposed to a more nuanced account of the Spanish Civil War, and it blew my mind because it wasn’t. 

It was, it was so much more complex and interesting than what I’d seen up until that point, it wasn’t. It was getting into the nitty-gritty, the details of the war and how this black and white, good good guy, bad guy idea, and that stuck with me and I didn’t read the TLS for years after that. But I think that experience of being marked by something, going “wow, like this publication does something profoundly differently than most other, than a lot of mainstream media” – that’s what long-form journalism does. And it’s the same thing with I don’t know the New Yorker. Well, the Economist is slightly different, but anyway. 

So I wanted to introduce this idea of being well-read too, because I think nowadays it’s kind of, like I said, it sounds a bit quaint. It sounds a bit old fashioned and in fact, Hilary Mantel talks about this in her review, saying that in the UK, at least, according to her, she said that not having read a book in a social setting, if you’re at a party, for example, admitting that you haven’t read a book could actually be a point of pride that you could actually be proud to say. “Oh no, I haven’t read that.” in a kind of boorish way. If you’re boorish you’re basically kind of uncultured – it comes from the Afrikaans word which comes from Dutch “boer”, which means farmer. So I really like this word – boorishness.

So she suggests that a lot of British people are boorish and I don’t know if I agree with her. I’ve never lived in the UK. I know lots of Brits. I mean for instance, the TLS comes from the UK, The Economist is British, so there might be a vein of boorishness in British society, but there’s just as much the opposite in British society. So I don’t know if I entirely agree with her.

There’s this idea, for example, if you think about Pierre Bayard, he’s French. I’ve done part of my education in French. I’ve had French professors and my impression is that it’s a bit of a cliché, but I think it’s a cliché for a reason, it’s partly true, the French do have a very traditional attitude to culture, or maybe conservative attitude. And so I think, for example, the idea of being well-read is still really deeply-rooted in French culture, that people don’t say it ironically. The education system still raises people to believe that there is a canon. 

I mean the French have what they call the panthéon, the pantheon. 

The Panthéon in Paris

So it’s this place – it’s a place, it’s also an idea. The pantheon – certain great French artists are buried at the panthéon and it’s this idea of this elite group of great people. Largely white, but not all. I read about Josephine Baker, the Black American singer who ended up living in France, was admitted to the panthéon. So anyway, I’m as you can see, I’m going off on lots of tangents today, but anyway. 

Such is life. That’s the way I am. 

Going back to this idea of different cultures having different ideas about being well-read so according to Hilary Mantel, the British are very much, don’t don’t take pride in being well-read and maybe in quite being the opposite, being a bit boorish, whereas the French still like at least in certain social circles, admitting that you haven’t read a book – people would maybe look down on you

What’s interesting is I think a lot of people, especially young people, people, the students, the students I teach who are about half my age, in their late teens or early 20s. I think if I surveyed them or you listener, and if I said, do you think it’s important to be well-read? I think students would quickly object and say, “Oh well, that’s very old-fashioned, that’s very conservative. How does anyone have the right to say one book is better than another?” And to be perfectly honest, I think this is a really dangerous belief, and I think maybe because I’m getting old I’m becoming more conservative in my outlook. 

But I do know Spain is maybe less conservative than France, definitely less conservative, and I’ve lived here for the last 12 years and I feel like here in Spain there’s a real hostility to this more conservative attitude to culture, and seeing this idea of a pantheon, of a canon, as something oppressive. It doesn’t bode well for the future of society. I think the canon is problematic, but I don’t think we can give up on it totally. 

I urge you to take a look at the list of 100 best nonfiction books and you’ll see that there is actually a plurality of points of view. It’s not all just dead white men and the fact is that there are plenty of incredibly important books written by dead white men. Go through the list and see if there’s something that appeals to you. 

Talk about books with people. This is something that if you’re not raised with books around it, it can seem like a very alien concept, and it seems like something that just, people who are full of themselves talk about, but books are not, like I talked earlier about being in relationship with a book. 

A book is a product of a person and a person’s imagination, so in a way, a book is, is kind of like it’s an artefact. It’s an object, but it’s also a human personality. It’s another human experience and I was talking to my mom yesterday and I was saying. I think a lot of teachers have faced this dilemma. How do we convince students of the incredible importance of reading, that literally reading could save your life. Books form your personality, they allow you to discover facets of yourself that you didn’t even know existed. 

We need to do a better job as teachers of impressing this upon our students, that this is not just to sound clever, it’s not just so you can name drop and say, oh, I’ve read Dickens or I’ve read Shakespeare. It’s that these books contain important truths about human existence that will open up new perspectives on life.

I’d love to hear from you. Is there a book that has changed your life? So get in touch, the address to get in touch with me is podcast@BetterLanguageLearning.com.


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