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How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read [Paperback]

Pierre Bayard , Francine Prose , Jeffrey Mehlman

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Book Description

Sept. 29 2009
“Provocative, challenging and witty…In challenging the line between reading and non-reading, Bayard actually whet my appetite to read more.”—USA Today

With so many important books out there, and thousands more being published each year, what are we supposed to do in those inevitable social situations where we’re forced to talk about books we haven’t read? Pierre Bayard argues that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve read a book or not. (In fact, in certain situations, reading the book is the worst thing you could do.) Championing the various forms of “non-reading,” How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is really a celebration of books, for book lovers everywhere to enjoy, ponder, argue about—and perhaps even read.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 185 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (Sept. 29 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915439
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596915435
  • Product Dimensions: 19.9 x 12.6 x 1.4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 136 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #242,508 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“Brilliant…A witty and useful piece of literary sociology.”—London Review of Books

“I read and adored Pierre Bayard’s book. I t'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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  56 reviews
87 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The virtues of non-reading." Nov. 9 2007
By E. Bukowsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Deliberately obscure and tantalizing Dec 9 2007
By hrladyship - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthy Read Dec 9 2008
By Grace L - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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
3.0 out of 5 stars Written in Language that Discourages Reading from Cover to Cover Dec 14 2007
By B. Evans - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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. . ."
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Non-reading as an art Nov. 21 2007
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Pierre Bayard's new book, "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read", is a bestseller in his native France and after reading/skimming it, he certainly encourages thought. From sections on "Ways of Not Reading" to "Literary Confrontations" to "Ways of Behaving", Bayard has laid out methods for making non-reading practically essential to the discourse of books. I can only imagine how book groups would dissect all of this.

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.

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