“How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read”

July 12, 2008 at 7:33 am | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(April 6, 2008)

When I saw How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, I thought it was a spoof.  I didn’t realize until I got it from the library that I’d read another book by its author, Pierre Bayard, and that I was in for something far more clever.  (The other book was Who Framed Roger Ackroyd?.)  Bayard is supposedly giving advice on how to seem more well-read than you actually are, while quoting such literary luminaries as Proust, Montaigne, Wilde, Eco, and Balzac.  He promotes a system of notation showing whether a person has heard about a book, skimmed it, forgotten it, or knows nothing about it – and even the books he claims only to have skimmed are impressive.

The cover shows a stack of books: Ulysses, The Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Hamlet, Middlemarch, In Search of Lost Time, War and Peace, and Moby-Dick.  I always get excited when I see a picture of a stack of books, because hopefully I’ll see something I’ll want to go out and read right away.  In this case, I’d read six of the eight, and am currently reading the seventh.  (My library doesn’t have a complete copy of Musil).  I had to laugh a bit, though, because the picture was obviously photoshopped.  It made Hamlet look about 400 pages long, while the two-volume Man Without Qualities fit in one ordinary volume. War and Peace and Middlemarch both appeared to have photo inserts in the middle.  I wonder how hard it would have been to find genuine copies of eight books that are all in print?

The back cover lists more books, and asks, “Which of these great books have you:  a) talked about convincingly without ever cracking the spine? b) read so long ago that you can’t remember anything but the title? c) skimmed just enough to have an opinion? d) heard about so often that you don’t have to bother reading it? e) actually read?”  The books are Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Man, A Room of One’s Own, Being and Nothingness, In Cold Blood, The Scarlet Letter, The Man Without Qualities, Lolita, Jane Eyre, and The Sun Also Rises.  Okay, I loved In Cold Blood, but is it really a “Great Book”?  I mean, it’s true crime.  Not that this is the point – the point is just that we all tend to recognize a certain list of famous book titles and feel like we ought to read them some day.  And this is a major focus of Bayard’s book.

Bayard starts out admitting that, as a literature professor, it is part of his job to pretend to have read books he hasn’t.  He continues, through various fascinating philosophical arguments, to prove to the reader that it is better not to read in certain cases.  A person who knows many things about a certain book may be better off than a person who reads it but has no context for it.  For instance, I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, but I do know that the author got in trouble for passing off a fictional work as a personal memoir.  I also know that existing copies of the book do not mention this backstory, and it is still shelved in my local library under nonfiction.  I may be better off than a person who stumbles across this book and reads it, thinking it’s a true story.

Bayard goes on to point out that a person who has read a book may not remember it very well; he includes the example of Montaigne, who couldn’t even remember books he had written very well.  He would hear someone quoting his work and not recognize his own words.  I’ve had this happen to me, too, so I see the point.  Again, a person who has read a book review may, at a certain point in time, know a book better than someone who read it five years ago.  Does it really count that we have read a book if we can’t remember anything about it?  (I’m glad for this because it makes it a lot easier for my book group to choose new titles).

Why do we read, anyway?  Bayard just about has us convinced, at the end of his book, that it’s better to read about something, or to discuss it, than to read it.  Reading a book may even affect our understanding of it in a negative way.  He even makes a case for criticism being more valuable than literature, and shows criticism as a potentially more valid creative act – especially when the critic hasn’t read the book in question.

This is where I know he’s joking.  Bayard is sly and quite brilliant.  In writing a book that purports to convince people not to read, he nearly forces the reader into a position of devil’s advocacy.  At the end of each argument, I had to agree with his examples, while disagreeing with his premise.  Of course we need to read books!  We even need to throw ourselves at “Great Books”!  Even if they are boring!  But then, maybe I’m a sucker.  I would be better off reading something called How Not to Talk about Books You Have Read.

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