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!
on December 9, 2007
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.
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.
on December 9, 2008
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.
on July 14, 2013
I am hoping to read this in its original French (for any nuances that may come from the "original"); but, it is a masterful work in English, and hope much more will be done on this topic and much more discussion in an academic level. This is not a dismissal of reading, and not a treatise on NOT READING, but rather on feeling comfortable about the fact that one, in one's life-time, will never, ever read all that one wishes to read. One can come close to it, but one will never get there. It is the universal "pursuit of perfection"; some will read more, and retain much, and some will read less, but retain much! Also, as one has to admit, even in the academic fields, there is always "one more" thing to read... one more unexplored field, or title, or place... the pursuit is what is fun, and valuable. THAT too is the reason why being in a library building filled with actual "books" (the physical copies of materials) is so important. The virtual reading of materials that are intangible, are not the same as browsing and "stumbling" upon another find, during the search. The journey is the discovery, not just the one item that is intended, or in hand. Likewise, even though I have never ever read the entire works of Shakespeare, I am aware of its immensity and importance. A poem, reveals its surface meaning to the casual reader, and it may be fun, it may be enlightening, and much more; but, to the one who delves further inside the inner levels and layers, there is much more to be found. One also has the right to sea, read, taste, and discard a piece, to his or her own taste. I will be re-reading THIS gem, in English; but hope to do so, also, in French, for the above-mentioned reasons. For all or most of us: happy trails !
on November 21, 2007
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.
This is among the very best books I've ever read, and is so packed with profound insight that I'm not sure how to review it, even after having read the print version a few months ago and having just finished listening to the unabridged audiobook. But one would hope that two passes through the book are sufficient, and I've recently gotten into the practice of reviewing every book I read (or listen to), so I guess it's time to try.
I think that the main thing this book accomplishes is to "invert" our relationship to books. Most of us are conditioned to treat books as though they're fixed objects with fixed contents, and so our job is to struggle to attain an "accurate" and "complete" understanding of each book, much as a scientist might aim to understand an atom, rock, or starfish. Therefore, if we're unable to properly understand a book in the first place, or if we come to misunderstand or forget a book over time, the fault and failure are ours.
Instead of falling prey to this sad state of affairs, Bayard teaches us that we should view books as being there to serve us, not the other way around (hence the inversion), and so we should freely take (or not take) what we need and want from books. And the "us" I refer to is each of us as an individual, as well as all of us collectively, interacting both with each other and with the (essentially infinite) universe of books.
When we adopt this perspective, we realize that there's no sin in skimming books, forgetting books, abandoning books, learning about books through the comments of others, interpreting books in an idiosyncratic way, disagreeing with books, judging that books are poorly written, or even deliberately not reading particular books at all. Sometimes it might even be permissible to talk about books you haven't read.
Bayard convincingly leads us to this perspective in a systematic and sophisticated way, using well-chosen case studies and very witty and entertaining prose (translated flawlessly from the original French). Sometimes Bayard engages in what seems like provocative hyperbole, but I don't think that this book is quite a work of satire, since all of the ideas fit together too coherently. Rather, I think that even Bayard's hyperbole always contains a kernel of truth, and often much more than a kernel, so part of the reader's challenge and fun is to figure out how seriously to take him.
Again, this is one the very best books I've ever read, so of course I highly recommend it, especially for people who read with any regularity. Indeed, for that audience this book is a must read, even though the book makes the case that non-reading is also sometimes appropriate. This book has the potential to radically transform your relationship to books in a way that's liberating and even empowering.
Ultimately, Bayard doesn't argue for not reading, or reading in a lazy or sloppy way. He argues for reading actively and wisely, with a conscious awareness of what one hopes to gain from reading.
on January 1, 2016
“There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all.”
That first sentence already sets the ironic tone of this book about our love of non-reading. Behind the joke of “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”, however, there is a surprisingly deep analysis of how we interact with books.
Author Pierre Bayard is a French literature teacher, and has often been in the position of having to talk about books he didn’t read, but only read about. The reason is a simple one. If someone did nothing but read from the cradle to the grave, he would only read a few dozen thousands of books. It’s almost nothing if we consider the millions and millions of books humanity has written, and the thousands that are released each year. So, even the world’s most avid reader touch only a tiny portion of humanity’s intellectual production. Even the greatest bookworms haven’t read dozens of canonic classics.
Bayard defends that we shouldn’t be ashamed of not having read everything, and that talking about books you only heard about should be more open and natural. It is better to strive to think about the ideas within the books – even if you only heard of them – than being a walking encyclopedia of citations.
The books also classifies several forms of non-reading, like works we only heard about, or perused, or read and forgot; and proposes how to behave as you encounter intellectuals, the author, or even trying to impress someone. Each chapter is connected with an example in literature – some even from book Bayard said he actually read!
“How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” is a playful essay that proposes a lighter way for us to face our intellectual deficiencies. I think it should be read or not-read by any lover of books.
on November 14, 2007
My caveat is first of all that I left the book at home so I am soloing here:
In a nod to how famous this book is already, let me just repeat: It's about not feeling guilty that you haven't read all the books you talk about. It also discusses the converse, of which I myself am guilty: If I've read and forgotten a book, then I can no longer claim to have read it. Also, no one can completely know a book. Any one person's reading of a book is just that: his/her own interpretation of a memory. But the fun thing is that the book takes on a life of its own in people's conversations about it(How to Talk About Books...certainly has); so, as he says, the text is "mobile."
My first reaction, as I skimmed the whole thing was, "This is completely hysterical. Hahaha!"
Then as I was leafing through it to find parts to show someone, I saw two actually very serious chapters, about 3/4 towards the end.
The first of these was about a literary critic in a novel by Balzac; Here PB is the meanest about not reading. The next chapter was a delightful portrayal of the book, I Am a Cat: Three Volumes in One, by Soseki, a Japanese author. Re: that book: Bayard was admiring, in spite of himself, of the people who can pull off not-reading so brilliantly that they can even call another person's bluff(or can they). So I was totally and seriously gripped by these two.
I also recommend the chapter where Bayard quotes Small World by David Lodge. Funny and a good cautionary tale. Small World is a tour de force of academic novels.
When you get toward the end of How to Talk About Books, you realize that this is all pointing toward 1) encouraging students' creativity and intellectual independence in general, and 2) maybe even a sequel,
"How to Write!"
If it weren't for this ending, I might even suspect that this book had an ulterior motive of actually being read. As Bayard says, discussing a book quite often leads to going back and reading more, which he hopes you will do. And I think he'd rather you read some of it than none at all.
on December 14, 2007
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. . ."