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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Paperback – September 29, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (September 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915439
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596915435
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #359,205 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 9, 2007
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....
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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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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