The Ethics of Not Finishing, But Still Criticizing, Books

Althouse notes the following, in a discussion of Megan McArdle criticizing a book while only half-way through it:

A rule against criticizing books you haven’t finished would overprotect authors, since you shouldn’t finish a bad book, and it would also underprotect authors, since the critics wouldn’t disclose that they hadn’t read the whole thing.

I think Althouse is right; she goes on to talk about the difference between blogging and a formal book review, and I think that’s right as well – although there are blogs and there are blogs when it comes to books, given the general collapse of the formal book review as a publication in newspapers.  Blogs are a large part of the critical review commentary still left standing.  And yet blogs, including my own blog posts, have this troubling tendency to switch back and forth at will (and too often at the intellectually laziest point, I have to say in my own case) from a certain formal rigor into deliberately informal, and suddenly indistinct and chatty mode that somehow never quite gets to the deep insight, or more precisely, the argument for the deep insight.

That’s about criticizing, though.  What about just plain reading?  The older I get, the fewer books I finish, and the more I read highly selectively – fast forward set on high.  This is either the getting of wisdom – or the gradual shutting down of (what to call it?) one’s social and engagement functions as one gets closer to in-turnedness of dying, the inability of the aging to take in new stuff because we are too occupied trying to process the accumulation of the previous decades.

But I am also reminded of that book from a couple of years ago, which I did read cover to cover, albeit quickly, by the literature professor in Paris who admitted that he hadn’t actually read nearly anything, including nearly everything in the canon for his classes.  How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Pierre Bayard.  He offered not just a tuquoque defense that no else actually read the things they claimed to read, either – but a ringing defense of not reading for its own sake, while still being more than willing to discuss it.  Including the argument that, at least in literature, since it was the argument, the criticism, the interpretation on its own that mattered, the actual text got in the way and also offered contra but frankly irrelevant bits.  The text at issue would only muck up the purity of the critical argument, I think that was Bayard’s point.