How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Reading books is an activity that takes place in one or both of two atmospheres. There is of course the private place — the bed at night, the chair by the fire, the poolside recliner — in which the reader is alone with a book. This is where most of us spend, or think we spend, most of our reading time. We wish we had more of it. We imagine getaways to more intensely private places, where there would be no distractions from solitary reading. Some readers even look forward the promise of unlimited reading time that retirement appears to promise.

In fact, however, few of us are so monastic by nature. Our dream of reading turns out to be a remnant of childhood nostalgia: when we were young, books offered genuine escape from the tyranny of parental supervision. As well-adjusted adults, however, we ought not to need to open the magic doorway of fantasy very often. Alongside the remembered pleasure of reading, we are likely to be pestered by a more complicated impulse: the sense that there are at least ten, fifty, four hundred or ten thousand books that we must read.

Most of our reading, in other words, does not take place in private. It is conducted with all the urgency of trying to keep up. It is very social. It is, at any rate, very much an aspect of talking with other readers, with other people who read things, and who have probably — undoubtedly — read all of the books that you haven't.

In an ideal world, I should be delighted to tell you that Pierre Bayard has written a book just for you. A book full of extremely useful advice about dealing with the problem of books that you haven't read. Because this would not be a book that you would ever acknowledge reading, there would be no need to feel competent to discuss it. Whether or not you read it would remain, forever, a secret. In this ideal world, in fact, you would not read M Bayard's book at all, because to read a book is to violate the compact that allows you to get on in the world by discussing, permissibly enough, books that you haven't read.

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and thus in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitely from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read.

If we take this attitude to the extreme, we arrive at the case of the absolute non-reader, who never opens a book and yet knows them and talks about them without hesitation.

Those are the opening lines of Pierre Bayard's extraordinary chapbook, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (translated by Jeffrey Mehlman). In an ideal world, this book would come in a special, invisibility-inducing wrapper. No one would know that you had (or didn't have) a copy. It would make itself comfortable on your bedside table without your having been advised to buy it. Ideally, you would be born knowing what M Bayard has to say. Bloomsbury Books, however, is hardly unique among publishers in having made its peace with the imperfect world in which we live. It has slapped a bright dust-jacket on How to Read Books You Haven't Read — a yellow spine, a light-blue cover — and seen to it that critics are supplied with free copies. (I myself had to buy one.) Instead of providing a source of secret manna, How to Read Books You Haven't Read is just Another Goddam Book to Read.

Bloomsbury has also tweaked the title, which in the original takes the form of a question: Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? M Bayard, in short, raises a problem but does not promise to solve it. We can't have that here. Here in Anglophonia, there is no point in mentioning a problem unless you have a solution in mind. That's when you write the book with the foolish subtitle, not before. (Bloomsbury is to be praised for not imposing a subtitle, foolish or otherwise, upon M Bayard's book.) How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, therefore, takes on a strange color in translation: it promises to square the circle. How can you talk about books you haven't read? Without, that is, making a jackass of yourself? Can Pierre Bayard really show you how to do something that is obviously impossible?

Calmez-vous. We must remember that this is not only a French book, and not only a French book about books, but a French book about talking about books, a pastime in English but an art form in French. Acknowledging the sheer impossibility of the project is in indispensable first step. That is why M Bayard starts off with the librarian in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, who tells a visitor,

General, if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.

This is not the place to rewrite the first chapter of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I am not going to summarize the author's clever propositions, most of which carry the earthily satisfying fragrance of Wildean paradox. If you really want to know how to talk about books you haven't read, then you will have to buy the book. It would not be worth buying, in my opinion, if it really were nothing but a collection of cute strategies for bluffing. In fact, however, Pierre Bayard has written an elegant and accessible essay on the nature of reading that, given the crushing weight of books that pour forth year after year, is essentially refreshing. People who actually read it will discover that he has taken a superficially provocative approach to the matter only because — we must face facts — what we call "reading a book" is so tenuous as to be almost impossible.

Again, childhood memories interfere. Reading The Wind in the Willows at the age of nine is not an experience that can be replicated in adulthood. I don't mean that the magic of Kenneth Grahame's book can't be recaptured. But to read such a book in the years before puberty is to know it. Because there are not many such books to read and remember, children's classics arrive with the forceful authority of Scripture. To read them really is an achievement, a completed thing. To read a book as an adult, however — particularly as a literate, book-consuming adult — is something else altogether, a matter of shards and fragments and misremembered passages. To "read a book" as an adult is to toss the contents of yet another volume into the unsightly middens of our minds. M Bayard refuses, in fact, to recognize the two most common classes of books: books that you have read and books that you haven't, because he believes, persuasively, that this is "a distinction conveying an image of reading that makes it hard to think about the way we actually experience it."

A stronger case for the utterly inchoate nature of "reading a book" can be made by writers. Although we do not put our own command of texts that we have read to any kind of test, we rather naturally assume that writers retain what they have written, but they don't, not necessarily. This was brought home to me not very long ago, when a reader of this site, in recommending it to the readers of his own, cited four passages that, in his opinion, exemplified a very high standard of writing. Although flattered, I recognized only one of the passages. The others were not only unfamiliar but as strange to me as if I had never even thought about the subjects that they addressed. And yet without very much work I was able to establish that I was, in each case, indeed the author. If that hadn't happened to me, I don't think that I'd have believed Montaigne when he writes (in "On Presumption"),

And I am so good at forgetting that I forget even my own writings and compositions no less than the rest. People are all the time quoting me to myself without my knowing it.

He goes on to beg off having to identify the quotations that pepper his essays.

Anyone who would like to know the sources of the verses and examples I have piled up here would put me to great trouble to tell him. And yet I have begged them only at well-known and famous doors, not content with their being rich unless they also came from rich and honorable hands; in them authority and reason concur. It is no great wonder if my book follows the fate of other books, and if my memory lets go of what I write as of what I read, and of what I give as of what I receive.

A literal and unimaginative mind might imagine that it would be possible to read a book "for sure" by committing its contents to memory. I daresay, however, that the sheer effort of recalling a memorized text of any length at all would thoroughly obscure the finer points made in it, and perhaps the grosser ones as well. The great difficulty with the seemingly desirable project of memorizing great swathes of poetry is that memorization itself seems to have a certain anaesthetic effect.

So we think that we have read a book — but then what happens? In M Bayard's view, one might as well have skimmed the book, or perhaps got the gist of it from a friend. One might, in short, might as well not have read it at all. With regard to the vast bulk of words that one takes in during the course of one's lifetime of reading, only a small number survive the act of reading — especially the act of reading other words. At a certain point in time, you looked at the pages of a book in a certain way — a way called "reading" — but when it was over, that was that.

Do you remember what you've read? Or do you convert it into something of your own, something easier to store, just as saliva turns starch into sugar? The easiest way to find out is to re-read a book that you read (but did not study) ten years ago. If you are not in the habit of re-reading books, then you're in for a creepy surprise. Much of the book is familiar. But much is not. Some things seem to be refreshed by seeing them again, although you had forgotten them in the interim. But just as you recall some things very clearly, others — things that may not have meant much at the time — stand out as first impressions.

Or you discover, to your great mortification, that something that you were certain is in Book A turns out to be in Book B — written by another author, perhaps in another century.

M Bayard conducts his discussion of reading very cleverly. Unlike me, he does not excite your defensiveness. You will readily concede that there are books that you don't know, whether it's because you haven't read them (technically, not a category here) or because you've never even heard of them. He leads you on to books that you have skimmed — books that Paul Valιry skimmed, anyway — then on to books that you have heard of and finally books that you have forgotten. By the time he gets to these, he has worked you into an honest frame of mind by convincing you that you're no worse than anyone else, including some of the more eminent literary figures. After all, if Montaigne could remember a tag of Horace, but not that it was Horace, and if he could not always remember Montaigne, well, then, what have you got to feel guilty about?

Having worked you over nicely, M Bayard is ready to propose a highly social theory of reading that has nothing at all to do with pretending to have read books that you haven't. The author is so clever, in fact, that you may not realize that a theory of reading is being spooned down your gullet. The impudence of the undertaking is considerably enhanced by the use of actual footnotes to set it forth.

Once you have abandoned all firm ideas of what "reading a book" might mean, the Bayard Theory rolls across the tongue as plausibly as a well-cooked sauce chasseur. There are three kinds of libraries in the world, and they are made up of three kinds of books. A table will be helpful. (Because M Bayard wouldn't dream of such heavy-handed pedantry, I shall have to step in.)













Helpful? Well, perhaps not by itself. As you can plainly see (insert Gallic wink), the table marks the intersections of two parallel planes of printed matter — books and the libraries that they constitute — with three parallel planes of personal space. The first and broadest space is the public; it is what is out there. The collective library is defined as "the larger set of books on which our culture depends at the moment." It is made up of screen books, of which educated people (the only ones who count for these purposes) may have "read," skimmed, or simply heard about. Always adroit with examples, M Bayard chooses the second book of Aristotle's Poetics, famous both for having been lost, apparently in antiquity, and for surfacing as a poisoned manuscript in Umberto Eco's best-known novel, The Name of the Rose. Everyone — everyone in the book, as well as really well-educated people today — has heard of this book, but nobody has read it. Since nobody has read it, nobody can talk about it from experience, but since everybody knows about it, it serves as a screen for discussions about other things (such as the nature of laughter). The Great Gatsby, while widely read, is even more widely familiar as a screen book, in which, as everybody knows, an upstart fails to win the hand of his lady-love (— who knew how medieval it all was?) while intoxicated flappers dance in fountains by the shore of Long Island Sound. Because everybody knows these things about The Great Gatsby, even people who haven't seen the movie(s), The Great Gatsby returns the favor by standing in as a collectively shared portrait of the Twenties in New York City and its environs.

M Bayard's genius is to distinguish the public from the social — categories that are quite naturally confused in everyday life. We may conceive of the public as, say, the contents of a public library. The social, in contrast, is constructed of all the interactions between people that occur with regard to all the books in that library. The books are phantom, because they exist only for the duration of conversations and other exchanges, and the library is virtual, because the books in it are by nature ephemeral. Take Sir Walter Scott, one of the pillars of literature in the Nineteenth Century but utterly unread today outside the academy, and likely to remain unread. As recently as a hundred years ago, Scott's books took up a well-known shelf in the collective library, but as this shelf was already only rarely visited, Scott's books did not occupy a corresponding place in the virtual library, because phantom versions were only infrequently created in the few conversations that readers still had about the famous writer's work. Nowadays, Scott's novels do not have a place in the collective library, either. Waverly and The Bride of Lammermoor are in fact hardly more likely to have been read today than the second book of Aristotle's Poetics.

It will be clear now, perhaps, why the private space stands between the public and the social. As David Denby points out in Great Books, each generation must reconstitute its own list of classics. Just because everybody's great-great-grandmother read Sir Walter Scott will not save him from oblivion today. If Jane Austen is thought to be a great writer, that's because living readers think so, not because we have somehow inherited the idea of her greatness. The collective library is in fact constantly being reformed by the weight of accruing virtual libraries. The cycle is mediated by the infinitude of inner books that, by discussing them, people convert into phantom books.

Already, however, I begin to feel that I am forgetting the actual contents of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read and replacing them with something of my own invention. (There are, as I say, no tables in the book!) I had better stop before I make a complete palimpsest of a very worthy — and witty — book.

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