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!