HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ
By Pierre Bayard
Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $19.95
We all fake it from time to time, and we could all use a few practical tips on how to do it better. But the title of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, a title that promises so much to so many, is a con. Mr. Bayard’s slim, abstract volume is not even remotely a how-to book; it’s more like a why-to, or a you’re-going-to-whether-you-like-it-or-not. And just in case you were hoping it might be humorous, I should warn you that although Mr. Bayard gives a few just-joshing winks, he otherwise maintains a sober demeanor, his tone patiently expository. His book may be a joke, but it’s not funny.
He explains that talking about books you haven’t read is unavoidable—and a good thing, too. A book is an “infinitely mobile object” that is “reinvented with every reading”—so we might as well skip that slippery, time-consuming task, and engage instead in the “authentically creative activity” of talking about the book without having read it. That’s basically it; the rest is elaboration, and the citing of authors who share Mr. Bayard’s views. Trust me, this is a book you do not need to read.
Oh, and here’s how to talk about it:
The author’s true audience isn’t your average nonbookish character seduced by vanity and maybe a couple of glasses of wine into dropping the name of an unread classic. Far from it: Mr. Bayard, a French professor of literature and a practicing psychoanalyst, is writing for theory jocks—precocious undergraduates, dreary grad students, pompous professors. He’s nudging literary theory further in the same old spectacularly wrongheaded direction: away from books, away from reading, away from the pleasure of reading, and deeper into the navel of intellectual self-regard.
Picture a crowd of lit-crit aficionados limbering up for a seminar: They flex their polemics and stretch out their rebuttals; they pump up their jargon, of course, and practice their Gallic shrug. That’s Mr. Bayard’s audience. (Unless it’s himself he’s writing for, his adoring gaze fixed on the mirror.)
HE BEGINS BY telling us what we all know but don’t acknowledge nearly often enough: Even the most indefatigable reader harbors huge gaps, blank stretches big enough to house whole libraries of unread books. As Mr. Bayard points out—with a telltale delight in paradox—“the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture [sic] that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.”
He goes on to say that many people skim instead of reading word for word—and, again, that this is not really a bad thing. Distance from the book gives perspective. Here he invokes Paul Valéry’s tribute to Proust, which begins with Valéry admitting that he has “scarcely read a single volume” of Remembrance of Things Past. Mr. Bayard also enlists Oscar Wilde, who with characteristic bravado asserts that “it must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form.” Wish I’d spent so little time on How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
Of all the nearly clever things Mr. Bayard has to say, this is perhaps the most important: “Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.” Whenever we talk about a book, unless it’s one we’ve studied so closely that we know it practically by heart, we have to contend with the vagaries of memory. Most books are gone only weeks after we’ve read them, leaving barely a trace. As Mr. Bayard puts it, with a proud poetic flourish, “What we preserve of the books we read … is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion.”
Bravely practicing what he preaches, Mr. Bayard never allows himself to say that he’s actually read a book. Instead he utilizes a nearly clever system of classification: UB is a book unknown to him; SB is a book he’s skimmed; HB is a book he’s heard about; and FB is a book he’s forgotten. He rates them on a scale that ranges from ++ to –. Who said theorists aren’t practical?
Assuming that my memory doesn’t betray me by retaining what I’d cheerfully discard, here’s how I’d classify How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read: FB–.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.