Reading about “not reading”


It’s more fun to talk about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read than to actually read it. I don’t think that was his intention, but it’s appropriate. The book eventually makes a solid point, which I’ll get to in a minute. But it’s couched in a style that tries way too hard to be tongue-in-cheek and sometimes “scandalous,” a mixture that doesn’t always work. The cover, the back material, and even the translator’s introduction suggest that it will be a send-up of the cocktail-party cognoscenti with a bit of satirical “how to pretend to be intellectual” along the way. But that’s not the book’s payoff – and that disconnect between the experience of reading it and the thesis is, in a weird way, at once his best point and a refutation of the book.

Bayard’s thesis is that, when we talk about books with others, what matters most is how we contextualize them and the intellectual trends, innovations, and revolutions they stand for. It’s simply a fact that you don’t have to actually read a book to understand its relationship to other books. I don’t have to slog through each page of Ulysses to know that it represents one of the most consistent exercises in literary stream-of-consciousness, that it’s a modern retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, that it’s esoteric and self-obsessed self- and cultural-referentiality became a mark of “modernism,” etc. What’s more important, at least when we talk to others about books, is knowing their role in intellectual history. In the constant murmur of culture, it’s the discourse about a book that’s more important than the details of its story, style, etc., and the point seems fair.

Now, you can get pretty far with that insight. Bayard spends most of his time showing just how much you can say about books you haven’t read. He even has fun by using examples from books which he admits he hasn’t read (or hasn’t read thoroughly). And I think almost anyone can relate to some of his examples. For me, the most guilt-inspiring chapter was on Balzac’s Lost Illusions about a neophyte literary-type who quickly learns that the way to survive in the cutthroat publishing world of Paris is to write book reviews about books he hasn’t read, and to write them in ways that will satisfy the audiences he wants to impress. It brought to light bad memories of two graduate school seminars where, I admit, I wrote papers on books I hadn’t read. (One was on Stanley Cavell and another on early American sermons…I actually got better grades on both than on books I’d toiled over. Go figure.) The experiences of being ashamed of not having read something and of trying to cover it up by talking about what we know about it are widespread, I imagine.

But the book disappoints when he starts to deal with how we react to that common experience. At times, he writes as if he’s trying to unveil some dark secret and to free us from the shame of not having read a book “which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.” (130) There’s a theme running through the book that “book culture” is out to make us feel bad about ourselves for not having thoroughly read a book. And he sets up a number of extremes to emphasize how impossible it is to live up to being “well-read.” The obvious extreme is that “culture” makes us feel like we should have read everything and that, if we haven’t, we’re somehow flawed. Another is that what it means to have actually read a book is to have paid attention to, digested, and have a perfect memory of every detail of a book. Certainly both of those assumptions about culture and the experience of reading are false. But most of Bayard’s strategies for talking about books (and defenses of those who haven’t) seem set up to defend against the “shame” of not being a perfect reader. That note gets struck so often that it becomes more of a weird confessional tic than anything connected to his real point.

In the end, Bayard just comes across as someone who really doesn’t enjoy reading (and can’t imagine that anyone else does, either), but feels compelled (by what, exactly?) to act like he does. It’s one thing to joke about how to talk about “classics” you haven’t read (and who actually has read every “classic”?). But Bayard seems most happy when he talks about how and why we should avoid reading altogether. This is where the tongue-in-cheek aspect seems both too forced and insincere. He even has a fun little system of categorizing books he’s encountered (or hasn’t): UB (“book unknown to me”), SB (“skimmed book”), HB (“book I’ve heard about”), FB (“book I’ve forgotten”). Notice that there isn’t a notation for a book he’s actually read, and that’s part of his real point: even actual reading is ultimately no more than just “skimming” because we’re constantly forgetting pieces of what we’ve read:

In every consideration of reading, we should remain mindful that books are linked not only to knowledge, but also to loss of memory and even identity. To read is not only to inform ourselves, but also, and perhaps above all, to forget, and thus to confront our capacity for oblivion. (56)

Now, that’s cute, but it only works if the only options for reading are total mastery and retention or “oblivion.” It’s a false dichotomy, an obviously false one. It also ignores the very simple fact that someone can always just open a book and re-read it or look something up.

But what I think Bayard overlooks by worrying so much about TALK about books is the personal experience of reading. When he does talk about it, he says that actually reading a book is potentially dangerous because readers get lost in details and idiosyncratic interpretations. And that just makes it harder to focus on the cultural meaning that a book retains in relation to other books. Having your own opinions about a book distracts you from others expect you to say about it. Culture becomes some kind of huge hive-mind that’s out to pass judgment on those whose opinions don’t fall in line:

At the core of such discourse is the one we address to ourselves, for our own words about books separate and protect us from them as much as the commentary of others. As soon as we begin to read, and perhaps even before that, we begin talking to ourselves and then to others about books. We will resort thereafter to these comments and opinions, while actual books, now rendered hypothetical, recede forever into the distance. (46)

But the only people I know who get that worked up about what other people think when they’re reading are academics. Most people, including well-adjusted academics (or maybe just those with tenure), can recognize the difference between “what people say” and “what I think.” And we can be confident enough to have and even enjoy our own opinions and reactions to a book. It’s that confidence that Bayard ultimately lacks, and all of his talk of freeing us from the “shame” of not having read something starts to sound just like massive insecurity.

In this case, the book was one of the few I’ve encountered where his advice fits: we should just talk about it rather read it.




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