On How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

June 28, 2008 at 3:36 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)


The title of this book is, to my mind, misleading. What in the original French was posed as a question (Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?) becomes, in it’s English translation, a statement, and that too, one that seems to slot the book into a category I abhor – namely ‘How to…’ manuals. Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is anything but a dummies guide to talking intelligently about books you haven’t read. It is not, as a quote on the back cover says, “A survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes” (though it could be, if that’s all you wanted out of it!), but rather a meditation on what it might mean to read or not-read. It brought to my mind the following exchange from Godard’s Liberte et Patrie:


– Father, what’s the best way of knowing if someone is trustworthy?

– You ask him, “What have you read?” If he answers, “Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac,” then he is not trustworthy. But if he answers, “Depends what you mean by ‘reading’,” then there’s hope. 


Bayard, who could have simply entertained us with clever tips on how to conduct witty, erudite conversations, instead employs both wit and erudition to talk about this taboo subject. It is bad form to admit you haven’t read the books that everyone is talking about; it is worse form to talk about them as if you had actually read them. Cultural constraints, he feels, are behind this taboo. The “obligation to read”, “the obligation to read thoroughly”, and “the tacit understanding … that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision”. The result, he says, “of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions” is “widespread hypocrisy”, comparable only to the mendacity with which we talk about sex and personal finance. Because reading is seen as a virtue, lies abound, especially among specialists – academics, critics, lecturers. Lies, Bayard says, are “a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading” and he claims that this book will analyze the unconscious guilt that non-reading can bring about. But, most interestingly, he says he will “consider just what is meant by reading” and the ways in which we interact with books – unknown, skimmed through, heard of but not read, and lastly, books we have read and then forgotten.


The most ‘radical’ non-reader is the one who hasn’t even opened the book in question. Before this makes the reader of this book (and this review) gasp with horror – Bayard provides the perfect example of such a non-reader, a character from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (a book I have been planning to, yearning to, and failing to read over the last nine years). The genius of his strategy is impeccable. Rather than provide examples from social life or chaterati, Bayard accesses the high temple of literature, and plunders it for the riches that will make his thesis grow out of the very same hallowed ground that makes non-reading such a sacrilegious act. Laughing at his audacity, and wondering how he plans to use his loot, one reads on.


The character is the librarian of the imperial library of Kakania, who is paid a visit by a General Stumm. General Stumm wishes to raid the library for the big “redemptive idea” that the patriots are seeking. Faced with three and a half million books, the General is stumped, especially when he realises that even if he reads one book a day it will take him ten thousand years to read them all. And here is when Bayard makes an important point, namely, “Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” And just when General Stumm (and this passionate lifelong reader) is ready to despair, the librarian provides hope in the form of his own personal method of dealing with the “infinity of available books”. He says he knows about every one of the three and a half million books in his library simply because he has never read them. The General is horrified. “You never read a single book?” he asks. “Never,” the librarian answers. “Only the catalogs.”  And he leads the General into the catalog room, where he feels like he’s “inside an enormous brain … the concentrate of all knowledge … and not one sensible book to read, only books about books.”


The point – made by Musil’s librarian, and by appropriation, Bayard – is the importance of maintaining perspective, of not losing oneself in the labyrinth of books, to be able to locate a book, rather than necessarily know its contents. “As cultivated people know,” Bayard says, mischievously, “culture is above all a matter of orientation.” To understand where a book stands within a cultural system is possible by understanding its relations with other books. This is, according to Bayard, not a passive attitude, but an active one. If a person who has actively decided not to read a particular book does so with the awareness, love and respect of Musil’s librarian, he is adopting a stance that will help him “grasp the essence of the book, which is how it fits into the library as a whole.”


And so Bayard proceeds, quoting in his second chapter Paul Valéry, “that master of non-reading” who, after Proust’s death in 1923, began his tribute with the words, “Although I have scarcely read a single volume of Marcel Proust’s great work … I am nevertheless well aware … what an exceptionally heavy loss literature has just suffered.” And instead of being ashamed of not having read Proust,  Valéry cleverly makes a case for reading Proust in fragments, opening In Search of Lost Time at random, and making this approach seem to emerge directly from the author’s intention. This way of non-reading, he suggests, is “the greatest compliment he can give him” and is in keeping with his “poetics of distance”, where a work is best perceived not through the details of a text, but the idea of it. And this idea may best be gleaned “by a critic who closes his eyes in the presence of the work and thinks, instead, about what it may be.” And thus, Bayard suggests, Valéry provides “rational grounds for one of our most common ways of interacting with books: skimming.” If Musil’s librarian offered us a way of situating ourselves vis-à-vis the “collective library”, Valéry’s method enables one to situate oneself vis-à-vis a particular book.


And then Umberto Eco enters the picture to help Bayard tell us about our relationship to books we have heard of, but perhaps never even encountered, except through what other people have told us about it, or written about it (much as I am doing by writing about How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read!). Bayard uses the hidden book in Eco’s The Name of the Rose to do so. The book that the monk-detective Baskerville realises (or maybe falsely deduces) is the reason for the murder of several monks by Jorge, the blind librarian, is none other than the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics. In this book, Baskerville surmises – based on his knowledge of the first volume of Aristotle’s Poetics which talks about tragedy – Aristotle defends the virtue of comedy, laughter, which, to Jorge, is antithetical enough to Christian doctrine to justify killing the monks who want to read it.  Both Jorge (who is blind and mad) and Baskerville, while ostensibly talking of the same book, have created what Bayard calls two different “screen books”, projecting on an imaginary object – the book in question – “his own personal agenda”. So books then, are “all reconstructions of originals that lie … deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others”.


It is the fourth category of books we have read and forgotten that is most poignantly illustrated through Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne, who says in his essay on reading, “if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retentiveness.” The problem of memory is so real and so painful that Montaigne apparently made notes at the end of each book he had read, marking the date on which he finished it and what his “judgement” on the book was. “I leaf through books,” he writes, “I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgement has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.” Oddly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Montaigne remembered books that he disliked more than those he liked. But for him the anguish of forgetting extended to the books he himself had written, an amnesia which led to the terror of repeating himself. As Bayard says, “While reading is enriching in the moment it occurs, it is at the same time a source of depersonalization, since, in our inability to stabilize the smallest snippet of text, it leaves us incapable of coinciding with ourselves.”


Is a book that we have forgotten one we have read? Is it a form of not-reading or rather “unreading”? If all the books we have read are indeed “no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”, why persist?


Bayard does not answer this question. Instead he moves his argument into the territory of social behaviour – interactions, confrontations, misunderstandings around books we have not read. An interesting concept is that of the “inner library” – books that have made us who we are. It is when two different inner libraries confront each other that conflict and misinterpretation arises.  Often, and this is so true, “the books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.” Wanting a person we love to have read (or non-read) the same books is a way of coming close to the loved one, of  “making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.” And though it rarely happens, “perhaps an ideal and deeply shared love should indeed give each lover access to the secret texts of which the other is composed.”


From the “collective library” to the “inner library” to the “virtual library” which Bayard defines as “a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library … located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion.” The virtual library exists in the “realm of communication about books”. It is in this realm that shame enters, and a concomitant violence if our non-reading is expressed in a way not congruent with the rules of what is essentially a game. When one’s image (particularly in intellectual circles) depends on the books we have read, telling the truth may expose that facet of our image we would rather keep hidden. To do this without shame, with flair and self-belief and a truthfulness to ourselves rather than others’ expectations of us, is an art Bayard believes well worth honing. 


There is much more in the book one could talk about, but I’d like to end with what Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Critic as Artist’:


“Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.”


“This is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul.”


To not be tied down by the content of the book or work of art, to use it merely as a starting point for creating another work of beauty, of subtlety, to see the critical text as a text that is “no more about the work than the novel, according to Flaubert, is about reality” – how refreshing that sounds in the context of dull summarisations that most critical writing tends towards. Just as this approach to criticism restores it “to its solitude” and “its capacity for invention”, so too, Bayard holds, non-reading enables the “reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, (to) find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”


As this book already slides towards oblivion, perhaps I should see that as a blessing. Out of the fragments that remain, detached from the specificity of the book now in my hand, I may be able to come up with a parallel text that is truly creative, where Bayard’s text will be, simply, a pre-text for mine. I look forward to that moment, if it should come.


– Sampurna Chattarji


[How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, translated from the French by Jeffrey Mehlman, Granta Books, London, 2008. With thanks to Pauline for lending it to me!]


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