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Bouvard and Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert (1881)

ImageBouvard and Pécuchet are copy clerks in Paris and good friends who enjoy discussing what seem to them serious ideas. When they come into a bit of money they retire to the country and proceed to indulge a series of obsessions: agronomy, archeology, literature, philosophy, religion, phrenology, pedagogy, sexuality, and so on. In each case they press on just enough to become a jack of the given trade but far from its master. Meanwhile their house crumbles around them. They are the types to become so engrossed discussing the nutritional composition of an ideal diet that they forget to eat their dinner. The book was unfinished when Flaubert died, but he left behind a plan which suggested that finally the two former copy clerks would choose to return to that pursuit. Instead of trying to implement all the ideas their scattershot reading had formerly led them to, they’d take the more direct route of pure recapitulation, simply compiling excerpts from pre-existing works into a compendium of received ideas. Just as Emma Bovary’s novels led her to mistake passion’s signs for passion, Bouvard and Pécuchet mistake the performance of erudition for knowledge.

Flaubert of course finds them fools. They know a great deal but understand nothing. They debate the merits of vegetarianism without noticing that they’re eating meat as they argue.

I confess to feeling a certain sympathy for them. Their struggle to ingest and be nourished by the overwhelming amount of information available to them reminds me of my own excitement and dread when I open my Google Reader feed, or contemplate the shelves of books I’ve yet to read. They may have seemed comic to Flaubert but they seem tragic to me.

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