By Dale S. Laszig
DSL Direct LLC
For almost a year after I purchased How to talk about books you haven't read by Pierre Bayard, I didn't talk about it, because, well, I hadn't read it. Bayard, a college professor, has spoken about ‒ and even taught ‒ books he hasn't read, an apparently common practice in academia.
Bayard dedicates one chapter each to four forms he identifies as non-reading: never opening, skimming, hearing about and forgetting books. "We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist," Bayard wrote. "As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read."
When I finally got around to reading the book, I thought of all the ways in which we talk about payment technology without directly experiencing it. Indeed, there is no way to directly experience the moving parts that surround us, so we organize them into conceptual frameworks in much the same way a librarian would catalog a vast supply of books.
Bayard elaborates on the library theme by describing a librarian in The Man Without Qualities, an unfinished novel by Robert Musil. The librarian is fiercely protective of the books in his care, but he has never read any of them.
"Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as the railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains – that is, their crossings and transfers – rather than the contents of any specific convoy," Bayard wrote.
Doesn't that correspond to how we think about electronic transactions? Many of us who don't read or write code can nevertheless visualize technologies we've never seen and barely understand. Often, just organizing moving parts in a meaningful way is enough to qualify us as experts.
A reader can apply the same organizing concepts to libraries and single volumes, Bayard said. It's a matter of perspective. "Skimming books without reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them," he wrote. "It's even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details."
Many sales managers would agree with that statement; they frequently advise merchant level salespeople to avoid getting too mired in technical details during sales presentations. Keep it high level, they say.
Another way to not read a book is to read a review or listen to what other people say about it. In fact, certain publications review books in such detail that the reviews themselves add depth and dimension to the original book. Sometimes book reviews even aggregate a collection of books on the same topic and create a comparative analysis.
Payments industry trade publications organize trending topics, regulatory issues and a variety of information in similar ways by parsing important concepts into manageable segments that professionals on the run can easily absorb. Bayard agrees this tactic can save a lot of time.
Bayard describes reading as an inevitable process of forgetting. "Even as I read, I start to forget what I have read, and this process is unavoidable," he wrote. "It extends to the point where it's as though I haven't read the book at all, so that in effect I find myself rejoining the ranks of non-readers, where I should no doubt have remained in the first place."
I'm sure many non-technical people can relate to that statement, especially in situations where they are required to demonstrate a new technology or explain the interaction between smartcards and POS devices to prospective clients.
Bayard said all literature provides a "fragile and temporary kind of knowledge," which is a good reason to keep our training manuals close and our engineers closer.
Dale S. Laszig, Senior Staff Writer at The Green Sheet and Managing Director at DSL Direct LLC, is a payments industry journalist and content provider. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @DSLdirect.
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