I was recently reading How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, and I was struck by some of his observations. He analyzes how reading actually works and whether anyone actually reads anything, since we forget things immediately after reading and read through our own perceptions.

He claims that “every writer is driven by the attempt to discover and give form to his inner book and is perpetually dissatisfied with the actual books he encounters, including his own, however polished it may be.” The inner book is woven “from the fantasies and private mythologies particular to each person” and “is at work in our desire to read…in the way we seek out and read books. It is that phantasmagorical object that every reader lives to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading.”

As I writer, I agreed with Mr. Bayard. I do write what I wish to read, and perhaps partly what I would like to experience, but when he discusses what to do when speaking with an author, I objected.

He suggests that, since every person’s inner book is different, no one can actually have any kind of shared experiences in a book. “[I]f it is true that the inner books of two individuals cannot coincide, it is useless to plunge into long explanations when faced with a writer. His anxiety is likely to grow as we discuss wheat he has written, along with his sense that we are talking to him about another book or that we have the wrong person. And he is even in danger of undergoing a genuine experience of depersonalization, confronted as he is with the enormity of what separates one individual from another.”

When I write my novels, I do so to share a story with someone else. The thought that such a thing is ultimately impossible would make such writing pointless. Why try to explain what happened, when no one else can ever get the same kind of vision, no matter how well we describe and write and craft the story? If such a thing is ultimately the case, then even good writing is ineffective, incapable of evoking the shared experiences we are trying to create.

In addition to examining the chasm between writer and reader, Mr. Bayard also discusses the dangers of reading. In his chapter on skimming books, he explores literary critic Paul Valéry’s attitude towards reading, explaining how someone who had to read books for a living could get away with not reading and even disdain those who did read.

This attitude crops up in a eulogy to Anatole France, whom Valéry replaced in the Académie Française. As he discusses his former colleague’s habit of reading widely and deeply, he suggest that such reading replaces our own thoughts, purging us of creativity. “Indeed, in Valéry’s eyes, such is the principal risk of reading to the writer—that of subordinating him to others…France, who never managed to blaze a path of his own, perfectly epitomizes the damage that stands to be done by reading.”

In my own experience, I have noted that reading works, particularly in my own genre, can result in voice and idea “bleed,” where what I write next borrows heavily on what I just read, especially if I put the book down just before going to the computer. As writers, we are encouraged to read from our genre, since it helps us know what has been done and what is selling—to know our market and our competition—but if such reading negatively influences our own writing, what have we gained? Our stories could end up being a patchwork of other people’s writing styles, with our own material, ideas, and voice buried.

What do you think? Can writers actually share a story with anyone else, or does the “inner book” get in the way? And is there a danger to reading? Can it destroy creativity? Or does it help by expanding your imagination?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

One thought on “The Trouble with Writing and the Dangers of Reading

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