Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts on How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

French scholar Pierre Bayard wrote this provocative book (translated by Jeffrey Mehlman; 2007). It does not have a readers' advisory standpoint nor is it light instruction for social situations in which people are discussing books. Don't let its slim size fool you: this isn't a breeze to get through. The book is divided into three parts: the different modes of "non-reading," a few scenarios of discussing unread books, and ways to get out of doing so. Works of literature are referenced throughout, most of which Bayard says he has either skimmed or not read.

It is easy to get annoyed with the author at times. There were parts, however, I found quite interesting, the first being the outlandish notion of not reading any individual books and instead developing one's cultural literacy through placing all books in context. Bayard argues that culture is really "a theater charged with concealing individual ignorance and the fragmentation of knowledge" (126). He says: "The trick is to define the book's place in [the collective] library, which gives it meaning" (117). Another intriguing idea Bayard explores is literary criticism being an art form in itself. He argues that reviewing a work is most importantly an act of creativity and self-discovery.

He prefaces his book with the following quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." Bayard is a psychoanalyst as well as a professor of literature, and he veers into that sort of territory in the book. Take, for instance, his notion of "phantom books that surface where the unrealized possibilities of each book meet our unconscious. These phantom books fuel our daydreams and conversations far more than the real objects that are theoretically their source" (160). There are parts of the book well worth reading for the enlightening tidbits, so I would recommend skipping over some sections to get to the good parts.


  1. Is this book SUPPOSED to make you mad? Of course I haven't read it (smile), but I bristle at the notion of willful, arrogant ignorance and deliberate deception. I have nothing against context (I feel like I can't begin to understand a book until/unless I can place it in the context of some genre), and I'm a great believer in phantom books. But is the guy actually saying that you should PRETEND that you HAVE read a particular book? If so, and if the intent isn't purely humorous (a la Wilde), just makes him a poseur ...

  2. That's the thing about becoming annoyed with the author: I don't know what, if anything, got lost in the translation, but the tone of the book is confusing to me. At first I was taking the writing at face value and getting increasingly annoyed, then I realized this has got to not be totally serious. And no, he's not saying you should pretend that you have read a particular book. On the other hand, he IS sayign that you should play into the understanding of cultural context and talk about what you do know about its significance without putting your foot in your mouth.

  3. It would be interesting to learn Bayard's opinion on Michel Foucault's idea of the death of the author. If "the trick is to define the book's place in [the collective] library," where then is the place of the author? When I read books that reference a lot of other books, I always wonder about the philosophers, feminists, and other writers behind the texts. I always think that since they have produced works that have been referenced that they have some importance. How do they fit into culture? For Bayard are they as unnecessary to study in depth as the works they have produced? Are they only names since the author is erased through the writing?