To Thine Own Self Be True…I didn’t read read Hamlet either, yes you read that right

I could tell you that Hamlet was played by Kenneth Branaugh, Mel Gibson in the movies and most recently Jude Law in an off-broadway production. I could tell you that the play was integral to the works of Freud and Nietzsche. I could name some other characters if you’d like, I could even quote a line or two but that’s about it. I didn’t read read Hamlet and Pierre Bayard would tell me not only is that perfectly ok, but I should not feel any guilt whatsoever. I should accept the fact that my cultural literacy is shaped by gaps and fissures and this does not prevent me from forming my own solid portfolio of literary knowledge (Bayard, 124). Furthermore to act as if I read read Hamlet without having actually read Hamlet would further inculcate me in a cycle of shame and prevent me from ever fully being me – Jeanette (my mom calls me gingy…long story), autonomous, academic capable of transmitting to you dear reader my authentic thoughts on any book in my own voice…but Bayard, what is my voice? Where is it? How do I find it and more importantly, how do I write it?

It is no mistake that Bayard’s book is called, “How to talk about the books you haven’t read” and not “How to write about the books you haven’t read” because methinks that would not be so easy. Bayard does give (non-)readers an inkling of what it takes to be a writer:

To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself (180).

So…when I stop reading and I stop being influenced by all the authors I know and love, I am freed to write my own works in my own voice, all by myself in a full throttle stream of consciousness, correct? There are no baby steps or guidelines leading up to this just free falling words from inky nub to cottony page…ok, fair enough, but Bayard is a semi-satirical, semi-fictional work so until I read those words from a more valid source, I will be inclined to believe them.

“An author’s anxieties about his own credibility can lend her to subordinate her voice to the point where it cannot be heard at all (Semenza, 169).” — Gregory Colon Semenza, author of Graduate Study for the 21st Century

I have a writing voice. I’m supposed to know how to use it and not be anxious, Bayard suggested, Semenza approved.

How does one cultivate a genuine voice in graduate school?

P.S.: This post is about voice and not Hamlet, in case you weren’t planning to read read it.

About Steve Mentz 1264 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and the blue humanities at St. John's in New York City.


  1. While many of the beliefs of Bayard can be seen as satirical and it would seem he is proposing an extremely liberal approach to the study of literature, I think you grasped the crux of his essential goal–to advocate the writer’s emancipation from past achievements and idol worship. After all, the writer’s primary purpose and responsibility is to add something new to the dialogue of a particular topic or creative genre. The distance we have from a particular piece of literature represents a curiosity that never remains after thorough reading and analysis of that work. While there is great enjoyment derived from completion, there is a valuable experience in the anticipation of a narrative and our initial stimulation to unfolding drama. Jeneatte, it is very encouraging that as a writer and a reader you recognize the importance of developing a new and unique voice. I believe this is probably the most challenging aspect of creating something original–that we are continuously influenced by what we encounter. It does take a conscious distancing of ourselves from the material to find our own voice.

  2. Re “new and unique voice” — I think you’re write that, in the end, Bayard is more concerned with writing than (not) reading. I also take Goldsmith’s critique, though, that there is not much new under the sun. I wonder if / how we can hash together these two perspectives, and what that mixing might say to how we read and write in the current climate.

  3. Jeanette,your post made me laugh–I think you have developed your own voice beautifully. One thought I had while reading Bayard’s meditation on shame and its relation to us as students responsible for so much reading, is that it’s quite liberating to understand that there is no shame in not knowing. And admitting that you don’t know, haven’t read Hamlet or anything else for that matter, is to open the door to hearing from someone else in conversation about the thing you haven’t read. Which might make you somewhat wiser, if not better read. Keeping my ignorance to myself, I feel, is something I have finally grown out of. Sharing it only leads to new knowledge.

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