How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read Paperback – Sep 29 2009
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“Brilliant…A witty and useful piece of literary sociology.” ―London Review of Books
“I read and adored Pierre Bayard's book. It's funny, smart, and so true--a wonderful combination of slick French philosophizing and tongue-in-cheek wit, and an honest appraisal of what it means, or doesn't mean, to read.” ―Claire M essud, author of The Emperor's Children
About the Author
Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst. He is the author of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, and many other books.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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!
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.
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.
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.
Thank heavens it's a relatively short book for much of it dissolves into minutiae following routes to curious ends. The author gets tangled up in himself quite a bit and these are the easily skimmable parts. Yet he makes some terrific contributions along the way including the very core of his work....how to discuss books you haven't read. It's an anti-intellectual approach made to sound just the opposite but his humor conquers the day. My favorite chapter is one called, "Encounters With the Writer", where he persuades us that even the best writers don't know much about their own works. Bayard saves one of his best tidbits of wisdom for the end of that chapter when he says..."to those who find themselves having to talk to an author about one of his books without having read it: praise it without going into detail." Sensible advice for anyone in that situation.
Pierre Bayard has offered readers a thoughtful, if often uneven book, and I thought twice about what he says regarding critics as I write this review. But he does provoke one to think and encourage us to make those candid observations on our own. To that end, the author has succeeded.