- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
- ASIN: B001P3OLS8
- Package Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.4 x 0.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 69 customer reviews
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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Hardcover
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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.
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.
2. Being willing to fearlessly engage about books we have not read cover-to-cover (or at all) opens the door to greater creativity within us, as we are less likely to get entirely wrapped up in the ideas of others, but rather we can use whatever elements we have encountered as a springboard for our own creativity.
In each chapter, Bayard explores some element of "non-reading," using a different book as a text. For example, he draws on Graham Greene's The Third Man  as an example of how to speak in society about books we haven't read (as the protagonist is forced to do at one point) and on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose  to demonstrate decoding what a book is about only from what you've heard about it (as the protagonist of that book must do). One chapter even uses a film as its text, none other than the brilliant Groundhog Day (on how to seduce someone by talking about books you haven't read). Ironically, I will surely go on to read several of the books he described (but don't worry, Pierre, I'm sure I will forget them soon after.) One of the funniest innovations is Bayard's system of footnoting, which consists of the following abbreviations:
Note there is no marking for "Book I've read," as part of the premise is that there is no book we have simply read. Even those books we have read cover-to-cover are books we have already begun to forget or to remember incorrectly.
Another fun element is a game called Humiliation, introduced in the chapter on "Not Being Ashamed," in which players name a book they have not read but then gain a point for each person in the group who has read it, i.e., winning only by demonstrating oneself as less well-read. We played that game at a recent family event and had loads of fun humbling ourselves. (It also works with films.)
There is even a surprising revelation in the penultimate chapter "Inventing Books," which is a significant accomplishment for a book of this genre. (It's like The Sixth Sense  of literary criticism. Or The Village . Or Invincible .)
Just as Anne Fadiman's essay "Never Do That To A Book" in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader , Bayard may actually have changed my relationship to books, giving me license and a rationale to appreciate, interpret, and - most importantly - talk about books that I have experienced more casually than others.
* A friend asked me how forgetting a book can lead to a meaningful interaction: Bayard's premise, with which I concur, is that as we forget books, what we actual remember reflects less the book and more ourselves, which is a valuable starting place for a meaningful interaction.
 Adapted from Acts 26:28, The Bible, BS++