88 of 95 people found the following review helpful
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Pierre Bayard's "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," translated superbly from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman, comes at a time when a number of experts declare that reading in America is on the decline. Since the 2004 report from the US National Endowment for the Arts documented that Americans are reading less and less, there are more distractions than ever that keep people away from bookstores and libraries. The Internet, cable television, and other forms of entertainment, as well as the pressures of work, family, and social responsibilities quickly gobble up our days. For some people, a lack of erudition presents no problem. However, for those who would like to appear knowledgeable (even if they are anything but), Bayard comes to the rescue.
The author, a Professor of French Literature and a psychoanalyst, assures us that "it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety--or even opened it." Whew, what a relief! In addition, Bayard informs guilt-ridden non-readers that they are in very good company, since "mendacity is the rule" when it comes to reading. Few individuals who wish to be taken seriously by their peers will admit to never having read certain "canonical texts," so they simply lie and pretend to have read them. The whole spectrum of non-reading is covered here: books we've never cracked open, those we've merely skimmed, books that we've never laid eyes on but have heard about from others, and those that we read years ago and have long since forgotten. When books fade from our consciousness, we might as well not have read them at all, Bayard asserts. In many cases, "Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory...." Therefore, if you are a non-reader, fear not; you have nothing to be ashamed of and you are certainly not alone.
The author quotes works both well-known and obscure, such as Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," Graham Greene's "The Third Man," and Balzac's "Lost Illusions" to support his thesis. He uses intricate and arcane philosophical arguments that are almost mathematical in their precision, to "prove" that one can and should avoid delving too deeply into books. He even uses his own jargon (some of which is borrowed from other disciplines) to describe ways in which non-readers relate to unread books and to one another: screen books, inner books, phantom books, virtual libraries, and the collective library.
Although to the casual reader Bayard may seem to be playing it straight, "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" is brilliant and subtle satire. Amazon reviewers should take special note of the Oscar Wilde quotation that serves as the book's epigraph: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." Comments such as these that demonstrate how foolish it is to actually read the books that we talk about are so absurd (although they appear logical on the surface because they are couched in such ornate language), that Bayard ends up strengthening the opposite viewpoint. Those steeped in literature, even if they do not recall every word they have read, are generally people worth knowing; they are far more interesting to talk to than those who spout empty phrases devoid of precision or depth; people's lives are richer because of their intimate knowledge of books. They do not have to worry about surviving professional and social situations on a wing and a prayter, hoping never to be exposed as frauds who profess to have literary knowledge that they lack. Ironically, Bayard ultimately demonstrates the power of books to evoke passion, sway hearts and minds, subvert the social order, and change our lives. "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" is provocative, thought provoking, and great fun. Rather than pretending to read it, read it!
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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As a voracious reader, I was intrigued by the title of this book. As I started reading it, I was at first confused, and perhaps I might have remained so had I not been forced to discuss its contents in a book group. There, aspects of Bayard's purpose became more well defined. As our nation becomes one of non-readers, what is said here is important, even if couched in a satirical manner.
A teacher of French literature and a psychoanalyst, Bayard recognized the phenomenon of non-reading and apparently decided to address it. The surprising thing is that everyone in the book group confessed to being guilty of one sort of non-reading or another. Until Bayard laid it all out, some of us were not even aware of the different ways in which to "non-read" a work: there's skimming, not even opening the book, hearing about it from others, reading reviews, etc. Worst of all, there is reading it then forgetting one had ever done so. The latter I do disagree with, for even though I might not be able to recall anything about the content on my own, I can be reminded by someone else. And having read a work, it becomes part of who I am, even if subliminally.
By using the works of others to illustrate his points, Bayard brings to the reader the value of even well-known stories, and puts us in touch with obscure stories in which having read or not read something is a part. His including "Groundhog Day" was something of a surprise, yet it brought some of the discussion down from the heights of high literature, pointing out that some subjects are present in many genre. Hiding the fact that one has not read a book, or not being ashamed of not having read it, can be most cleverly done.
One of the charming things about this work is the beauty of the language. The translator did a marvelous job. Although the volume is slender, this is a work that should be savored, perhaps even re-read. It's worth the time and money.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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I began reading Bayard's book expecting and hoping for a good laugh. I was disappointed. Not by the merit of the book but because it is, in fact, very serious in tone. Whether or not you identify this book as satire or theory, any reader who has encountered that "impossibly boring book" will understand the merit of Bayard's ideas whether he intended the reader to take him seriously or not.
This book seemed to go against every belief I have ever had about books and reading. I was told from when I was very young that the more I read the more I learn. I did not feel comfortable with the fact that this idea was being challenged. I began reading this book with intense skepticism and the intense desire to find something wrong with Bayard's argument. Instead, I found myself agreeing with him.
There are always books we cannot make ourselves read or we start reading them numerous times only to give up and put them back on the shelf. These books induce headaches, misery and coma-like sleep states. We force ourselves to sit through hours upon hours of unpleasant reading all the while retaining nothing of what we read. We could easily be reading something enjoyable or doing something more important. If we simply must read this book a skim is definitely preferable to hours of torture.
I found myself employing Bayard's techniques without even knowing it. I have a feeling I will keep doing so. The is the type of book that teaches you without you even knowing it. The only criticism I have is that there were simply too many quotes. It made the prose seem choppy. Other than that, this is definitely worth a read even if it seems you will not agree.
25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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Because I love satire, wit and above all "well-honed prose," the editorial reviews of this book had me salivating. Unfortunately, Bayard's writing turned out to be so turgid that HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ was anything but a "hilarious" or "fun" or even compelling read. So tedious was it, in fact, that to describe the book as "witty" is a stretch. It was only because I found Bayard's approach to the subject so novel that I slogged on to the end through page after page of passages such as the following:
1) "As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter of not having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of a book is less important than its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it."
2) "Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment. It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a larger part of the whole. It can be argued, then, that a book stops being unknown as soon as it enters our perceptual field, and that to know almost nothing about it should be no obstacle to imagining or discussing it."
3) "The difference between talking about books and reading them is a function of the fact that the former implies a third party, whether present or absent. That implied third party has palpable effects on the act of reading as well, by suggesting that an outside presence might be able to change how our reading unfolds. As I have attempted to show in the previous sections...our discussion of books is the stage for a conflict in which our relationship with the Other, whatever its nature may be, ultimately wins out over our relationship to the text--which is itself inevitably affected by the struggle.
In fairness, I should add that Bayard is not quite as verbose when he is relating examples from others' writing, yet even then his prose remains wooden.
As for the overarching question-- Is Bayard really serious, or is he laughing all the way to the bank at those who think he is? Readers who are allergic to ponderous prose should take him at face value at least long enough to do a guilt-free read of the opposing views of his book on Amazon and/or of the following ones on the web. Reading about this book may prove to be all that many need or want to do.
-"Faking It" (J. McInerney, New York Times)
-"To Read or Not to Read" (G. Hovannisian, National Review)
-"French Twist: How to Talk About Books..." (S. Anderson, New York)
-"A Satirical Defense of Intellectual Laziness" (S. Gold, Chicago Tribune)
Note: A reprint of Bayard's preface to the book can be found in the comment Robert Ross added to his 4-star Amazon review, "An Interesting Book to Skim. . ."
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Professor of literature and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard wrote "How To Talk about Books You Haven't Read" to tell us that we shouldn't feel guilty about not having read the classics, or skimming them, or discussing books with which we have no personal experience at all. This is a perfectly acceptable social activity. It's more important to understand a book's place in the culture, in our "collective library", than to have an intimate knowledge of it. There is more than one way to read, which encompass several types of non-reading. And people lie about what books they have read anyway.
He has a point. Few people hesitate to offer opinions on subjects about which they know little. Indeed, social discourse would decline precipitously if we didn't. Discussion of books is no exception. Bayard claims that only finance and sex can compete with books as subjects for which people so often exaggerate their achievement. I don't doubt that this is true in France, where literature is practically fetishized. Bayard believes that achieving cultural literacy is a more practical and worthwhile goal for the average reader than absorbing the literature itself, and this is easily achieved through cursory or indirect contact with books.
He has a point there too. Cultural literacy is by and large achieved indirectly. People do come to understand a book's place in the culture through talk of the book more than by reading the book itself. In this way, books (and other media) are the equivalent of the stories in which oral cultures for thousands of years imbedded the values, anxieties, and information that shaped their societies. It never mattered if anyone remembered the story exactly as they heard it. People are good at gleaning the memorable ideas through non-reading, as is evidenced by countless classes of literature students.
But the value of reading vs non-reading depends upon whether you think that books serve a social purpose, like the oral traditions of old, or a personal one. Do we read to enable interaction with our culture, or with the language and ideas of the text itself? People obviously do both. Bayard may be right that we should shed the guilt about not having read the book. Then there would be no reason to lie in order to discuss the ideas that a book reputedly presents. But reading -or non-reading- for social purposes is an entirely different pursuit than reading for pleasure or personal knowledge.
**In the spirit of non-reading, I wrote the above paragraphs before I read the book, based on reviews and an interview with the author. Below is what I have to add based on reading the book.**
Now I'm confident that reviewing before reading was the right thing to do. M. Bayard warns against reading before reviewing in chapters 10 and 12. If I had taken that approach, I might have insulted his principles. But I'm puzzled by the reviews I read beforehand. They all omitted an important piece of information: This book is satire. Oh, I'm sure Bayard believes much of what he says. He's correct in claiming that cultural literacy is, by necessity, acquired indirectly, not primarily through personal experience, and that it relies more on our ability to place books in their cultural context than on intimate knowledge of them. But Bayard overstates his case for comic effect. He's making fun of academia, of pretentious literati, of readers and non-readers, and he's making fun of himself.
Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Bayard describes different types of non-reading, analyzes amusing circumstances in which people talk about books they haven't read, and turns to fictional characters for guidance in non-reading dilemmas. His points are illustrated with examples from literature, which the author dubiously claims not to have read. It's a satire of an academic treatise, and, accordingly, bogs down in the details. But even the table of contents had me laughing out loud. "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" is clever, provocative, and funny. You can grasp the ideas without reading it, but in order to be entertained, I'm afraid you will at least have to skim the book.