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how to talk about books you haven't read

9 january 2008

Without having read Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, you'd think it was a kind of smart-aleck guide to how to save time while impressing your bookgroup. The dust jacket encourages that assumption, listing twelve Great Books and asking archly if you've ever talked convincingly about them "without cracking the spine." Inside, it seems, will be the passe-partout to literary knowledge, a kind of Cultural Literacy for Dummies.

Inside is nothing of the kind, of course. How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read defeats our expectation that it will be a shortcut to non-literacy. For one thing, every book you read reveals ten or twelve others you haven't. To know a book, whether you've read it or not, means largely to know its location in a largely imaginary "collective library" that exists in the intersecting experiences of a community of readers. There may be shortcuts to actual reading, but in Bayard's view, not-reading lots of books is very hard work.

For some other things, nobody reads every sentence of every book they read with rapt attentiveness. Humans are book-skimming animals. And unless we are eidetic savants, we start forgetting what we've read as soon as we turn the page. You have already forgotten most of the first paragraph of this review. Hell, I have already forgotten most of it.

Bayard is so skeptical of the notion that even literature professors "have read" books that he admits, in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, to reading almost nothing he discusses. The best he will say, via a delightfully coded apparatus of footnotes, is that he has heard of some books (HB), skimmed others (SB), and forgotten others (FB).

Is reading possible? Bayard adduces the case of Montaigne, who frequently complained that he could not remember what he'd read (and often, too, what he'd written). In reading Bayard on Montaigne, I'm not sure whether to feel comfort or despair. It's great that a Parnassian figure like Montaigne has a head like a sieve, but perhaps all our conversations about literature may be no more than the rattling of many sieves together.

Given the porousness of the literate mind, Bayard shows that most discussions of literature, in the classroom or in the coffeehouse, are not directly about texts. They are about half-remembered texts, "screen texts" that we project over unremembered readings, virtual texts created by the intersections of such projections, and ultimately the layerings of ourselves that we spread thick over what we have, or haven't, read.

Oscar Wilde, after all, said that "it must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient" (qtd. in Bayard, 170-171). Like Wilde's Gilbert or the Onion's Malcolm Seward, I have started far more books than I have finished, and like many of my reading friends have become even more confident as an abandoner of books as I grow older.

I finish about three books a week – 150 a year – a pace that amazes some of my colleagues and about which I am fairly insufferable. The cost of such truly manic reading is a great deal of forgetfulness. But since my ratio of books started to books finished is so high, I acquaint myself with hundreds more books, not to mention the ones that I merely hear of. Like Bayard's example of the librarian in Robert Musil's Man without Qualities (a book I've merely heard of), I manage to know a lot about books without opening them – or by opening them, reading every page, and then promptly forgetting they exist.

When people point out that I have forgotten more about literature than most people will ever know, I usually counter with the caveat that for all that, I've still forgotten what I know. But one reads on for several reasons. Sheer addiction is one of them: the pleasure cathected from bindings and bookmarks. But there is also the faith that even a forgotten book percolates somewhere in the unconscious, like a forgotten scale exercise that translates into dexterity at the piano. I have read Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, and while the title is both all I remember of it and an apt description of the eventual destination of all reading experiences, I must, obscurely, be the more literate for it.

I have certainly read How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, and so recently that some of it is still with me, and I am much better for it. But have I read Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? Certainly not, though I have now heard of it. I have actually read none of Pierre Bayard's words, but several thousands by translator Jeffrey Mehlman. Unless one is omnilingual, that's the closest one will get to many books. And even when one can read the original language, our monolithically English culture makes it hard to get at the original behind the translation. Bayard does not address translation, but it occurs to me that the reading of any translated book is often no more than a skimming. Perhaps the reading of any book not in one's native language, or even one's home dialect or register within that native language, is a partial and much-patched together thing.

As I mentioned (and then forgot I'd mentioned: thank God for the "Page Up" key), Bayard never admits to having read an entire book, and certainly not to "knowing" a book. Yet there are certainly books that an avid reader returns to so often that "SB" no longer does justice to the experience. It has struck me recently that I read 150 new books a year while some of my lit-professor colleagues barely read ten, maybe not even that many. They are often much better scholars and critics than I am. While I am busy feverishly forgetting what I've read, they are quietly living with texts in a way that Bayard's concerns here don't allow him to address: an inhabitation, an interfusion of mind with text. Like Bayard, I am too impatient, or too insouciant, to bring that off. But it is not to be despised.

And then I have other colleagues like a friend who has been known to answer, when asked if he's read a book, "read it? I haven't even taught it!" Surprisingly little knowledge of books is needed in order to teach literature, and this is the great trade secret that Bayard gives away. All you need is confidence, honesty, and a certain brazenness. Your students are standing on the shoreline of literary culture, and they've just started to dip a toe into the surf. They don't yet realize that their professors are only ankle-deep. But professors who do not know that they are only ankle-deep are truly in over their heads.

Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. [Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?, 2007.] Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

UPDATE 01.13.08: Yesterday, in a big chain bookstore, I saw How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read shelved in a Reference section, alongside In the Know: The Classic Guide to Being Cultured and Cool, The Book of Lists, and other shortcuts to miscellany. Talk about "location!" Needless to say, the book should be in Literary Criticism, and will do no seeker of instant good taste any good at all. Sorry, Charlie.