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“How to Read Books You Have Not Already Spoken About,” Héctor Hoyos
“How do I think about literature? Or rather, what do I think about it?” Professor Héctor Hoyos began the third talk in the occasional series “How I Think About Literature” by trading the word “how” for “what,” following in the footsteps of Professor Russell Berman, who opened the discussion last September. Professor Hoyos defended this change, saying: “I suppose the whatmay be more interesting than the how, for I think about literature in much the same way I think about everything else these days, in between emails…” However, he was quick to point out he is no technophobe, and showed a youtube video that parodies commercials for ebook gadgets by praising the wonders of a “new” technological advancement called “Book.” It is marvelous, has no cables, no batteries, doesn’t need to be plugged in or recharged, can be used anywhere, and for a nominal fee, an accessory called a “bookmark” can be used to facilitate finding one’s page.
The title of the talk, “How to Read Books You Have Not Already Spoken About,” plays upon Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and alludes not only to how or what one reads, but how and what one doesn’t read. These acts of non-reading, as Hoyos called them, constitute an immense part of what students and faculty of the DLCL do every day. Yet, in this non-reading, there is much more than an un-opened book. Professor Hoyos argued that presently, literature has never been so situated, or entrenched, in context – it is virtually impossible to read a book for the first time. He remarked that even the works we have not personally encountered are already part of our literary knowledge. Non-reading has become a type of reading.
An un-mediated approach to literature is therefore impossible, and yet the reader, critic, student, and professor, all play fundamental roles in the existence of literature. Professor Hoyos noted his own approach to a life of reading: “I do not as much think about literature as I do literature, as we all do in this Division, as we are doing right now.” Literature, then, is not only the solitary and almost hermetic work of the scholar; it is in fact an activity in which we all knowingly and unknowingly participate. “There are no private languages when we talk about literature –jargon is a different thing. Talking about literature is a province within broader uses of language, a neighborhood within a big city,” stated Hoyos. Thus, in casting aside the illusory obstacle of seeing literature as something others do, he commented upon not only the various acts of reading, but later on the symbiotic relationship between reader and author, both doing and completing each other’s work, neither truly uttering the final word but rather actively and equally taking part in literature.
Therefore literature has taken on new non-traditional forms – and this is no euphemism for the supposed crisis in the humanities. Professor Hoyos was adamant when he said that the book versus e-book debate is ill-founded; and although the traditional book has had a “lock” on literature, he noted that “literature cannot be contained by books or other contraptions.”
And indeed Professor Hoyos went even further, saying that merely thinking about literature becomes literature, or the introduction of something unknown and never before (not) read. Drawing on his reading of Argentine writers César Aira and Copi, he claimed that every new act in literature is ephemeral, and underscored our own prolific role within this process. “We have little use for criticism that does not assume itself as creation,” he noted, characterizing this act of creation as engaging every work as if it were “on the brink of disappearance.” Then, he continued, “we must situate it. For we owe it to the epochs and readers that made it meaningful, as we owe it to ourselves to change its position as we see fit. We are not outside of literature, but are actors in an imminent space that has everything to lose.”
Alessandra Aquilanti, Department of French and Italian
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