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Shvitz Exclusive: Tod Goldberg Fakes It

[My girlfriend Sarah forwarded me a link to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on faking literacy. Not sure how this bodes for the state of our relationship, but I knew Jewcy contributor Tod Goldberg would dilate admirably this subject. … Read More

By / April 10, 2007

[My girlfriend Sarah forwarded me a link to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article on faking literacy. Not sure how this bodes for the state of our relationship, but I knew Jewcy contributor Tod Goldberg would dilate admirably this subject. – Michael Weiss]

When you write books for a living (and teach others how to write books for the health benefits, discount tickets to college football games and the built-in opportunity to hand sell dozens of copies of your back list each quarter), there is often a presumption that you are also wildly well read, as if each new novel that arrives at the front table of Borders is first vetted by you for possible use in interesting dinner conversation, extemporaneous workshop quoting and damning insults hurled at other literate folks. The problem here is two-fold, at least as it relates to me:

1. It is often difficult to actually read all of the “important” books, both new and old, because it turns out that “important” also can mean “so boring you find yourself with an anti-diuretic erection from fooling your body into thinking you’re actually in a deep, deep sleep.”

2. Time, as in: There’s just not enough time on Earth for me to read the new Salman Rushdie book, whenever it’s released, and, really, anything by Jay McInerney, either.

Lennard J. Davis, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (and with a general disdain for the French, which is something I think we should see more of in all discourse in academic journals), is by varying degrees apoplectic over people like me and, it seems, sort of envious of the ability to simply not read books you don’t want to read.

The University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard's best seller How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read is flying off the shelves in France. Not only does Bayard tell readers how to fake literary orgasm, but he admits to giving lectures on books he hasn't bothered to read. I'm sure Bayard's book will be met with outrage from many academics on this side of the Atlantic who lack the French national penchant for public display and intellectual pretension. Obviously, there is something seriously reprehensible about Bayard's know-nothing chutzpah (or whatever the French word for that is). Our goal as teachers is to teach what we know, not what we don't. But, outrage aside, perhaps it's time to admit that not reading has its virtues as well as its vices.”

My solution to this creeping problem has always been to simply lie and say I’ve read everything. It makes people think my intellect is so vast and Hitchensian that I’m likely to bark them down at any turn and with probable cause. As such, I’ve become rather adept at speaking in great length, at archaeological depth and with the clinical eye of a forensics expert on books I haven’t read, never intend to read, and, in the rarest of cases, am being paid to read in a workshop setting, simply by employing what I call the Silverblatt Method, so named for the host of NPR’s Bookworm program Michael Silverblatt. You simply make a series of broad pronouncements (“The words are like scrimshaw…”), hark back to obscure work you have read (“I’m reminded of Shirobamba by Yasushi Inoue…”), and pronounce the profound effect the book has had on you as a person (“McInerney’s The Good Life showed me how I might have fallen in love with someone exceptionally vapid after the terrible events of 9/11, too…”) and then wait for the somnolent nodding of the audience. The result is that I feel smart, well read, and have much more free time to play Madden online with a bunch of fourteen year-olds.

In an academic setting, of course, this method can only really work if the novel in question is not the one written by the brooding student of amorphous sexuality over there in the corner rocking the vintage Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt. In that case, what's needed is a well-timed tantrum over the class’ lack of pointed criticism and a proclamation that you’re gonna just sit this critique out to see how the class handles this “innovative, flawed, and ultimately very promising work” and that you’ll deliver your thoughts via private email to the student. As for the novel you’ve assigned the class to read which you inexplicably forgot to read yourself, your best intentions having lost out to the allure of living a real life –  repeat everything except the promise to email.

Is there guilt? Oh, certainly. No one ever likes to feel like a fraud, even when it’s true. But it’s a guilt that just doesn’t apply to the world outside of academia and cocktail parties where book advances are discussed like they have the power to halt the Illuminati.

Davis, however, finds the intellectual bukkake more paralyzing then it might otherwise seem to those not in the business of words:

It's the guilt and fear of not being well read, of having missed out on reading a work that everyone else has read that makes us shy about admitting our nonreading. Remember back when everyone was reading the same book at the same time — in my case it was The Alexandria Quartet, The Hobbit, The Greening of America, Amerika, or anything by Herman Hesse — and you weren't? You felt so out of it, and then it was just too late.”

Perhaps my feelings about this are muted by the fact that I’ve never read The Hobbit (I saw the cartoon), The Greening of America or Amerika (best Ice Cube album ever), and only read one stanza of The Alexandria Quartet, but I’ve long thought that being well-read doesn’t always mean that you have the same cultural DNA as every other professor or writer in terms of the books you’ve committed to your shelves or mental rolodex of fictive examples. It also means knowing that there is a life to be read outside of the printed page, where experience and understanding of human nature often far exceeds the vagaries of imagination.

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