How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read, By Pierre Bayard, trans Jeffrey Mehlman

Browse your inner library without guilt

Reviewed,Robert Hanks
Friday 18 January 2008 01:00

Do you feel guilty about the books you haven't read but know you should have? When the conversation turns to Tolstoy or Joyce, do you feel grubby and evasive ? At night, when leafing through a dog-eared copy of The Code of the Woosters or Maximum Bob, do you worry that the unread and half-read classics and literary bestsellers on your shelves are giving you dirty looks? Pierre Bayard offers you hope.

Far from the bluffer's guide the title suggests, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a missionary tract, preaching a kind of literary liberation theology – liberation, that is, from shame at not having read a book. In the first section, Bayard argues for the abolition of an artificial distinction between having read and not having read. Every time we read a book, we begin the process of forgetting it - details of plot or character vanish, even the book's general outlines blur, sometimes we forget having read it at all. Conversely, it is not necessary to have read a book in its entirety, or even at all, to know a great deal about it.

We read reviews, talk to other readers, skim books, read the first 100 pages then give up... Bayard offers the case of Paul Valéry, who began an obituary tribute to Marcel Proust with a frank admission that he barely knew Proust's work, before giving acute analyses of its importance. He even argues – along with a librarian in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities - that reading any particular book obstructs our view of books in the round. What matters is a book's location within the "collective library".

This is light and funny – deceptively so. Bayard is not belittling reading – au contraire, he offers some exemplary close readings of texts; and when writing of our "inner library", the books that have made a deep impression on each of us, he says "we are the sum of these accumulated books."

This is a bit much even for the most dedicated lecteur: are those who don't read somehow inferior? Aren't there other influences that form us – films, pieces of music, even (or is this hopelessly naive) the outside world? At this point, Bayard seems very much the French academic.

In the second and third sections, he examines the way we talk about books – negotiating not just our reading and not-reading, but the sometimes incompatible impressions we have of the same book. Perhaps because of his academic background, Bayard gives too much weight to the competitive element in bookchat. But it equips him for a sharp analysis of the episode in David Lodge's Changing Places in which an American assistant professor is so wrought up by a game called "Humiliation" (in which you score points by naming books you haven't read but everyone else has) that he plays the trump card of not having read Hamlet, and shortly afterwards is refused tenure.

Bayard points out that the mistake here consists not in failing to read Hamlet, but in insisting on the fact. Conversations about books take place in a "realm of play", "a space of constant negotiation and intermittent hypocrisy"; to turn it into a "realm of truth" is to court madness.

Not all of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is persuasive, and at times the minting of paradoxes seems almost a mannerism. Mostly, though, it is a witty and painfully accurate analysis of the ways in which we get acquainted with literature and the part it can play in our lives. I would recommend that you read it, only that doesn't seem in the spirit of things.

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