Writing a review of this book after reading it is somewhat problematic for several reasons. I selected it based on the idiosyncratic and seemingly tongue-in-cheek title, because of a propensity I have been accused of indulging in the past, particularly related to movies I haven't seen.
Turns out, Bayard is quite serious, and maybe quite right. Selecting a particular book to read entails, especially in today's avalanche of printed materials, the rejection of the overwhelming flood of books one has now chosen not to read. I consider myself a voracious reader, and having kept a database of reviews of every book I have read since mid-2002, I realize that while reading 625 books over those 80 months, I have fallen drastically far behind. Without googling the publishing statistics, I would gainsay that there have been many single days in that time period where more new books were published than I read over the 80 months. Bayard tells of a character, a librarian, in a book called "The Man Without Qualities" by Robert Musil; the librarian, faced with the impossibility of knowing all the books, resolves never to read any of them, only reading books about books.
As Bayard elucidates, cultural literacy depends not on having read any particular book (in opposition to educators and critics who provide us with lists of essential knowledge and berate us for failing to absorb it), but on understanding the relationships between books. For example, Bayard uses the example of another literary character who has (fatally to his career as an English professor) admitted to not having read "Hamlet": "Ringbaum certainly has at his disposal a great deal of information about it and, in addition to Laurence Olivier's movie adaptation [which he had seen], is familiar with other plays by Shakespeare. Even without having had access to its contents, he is perfectly well equipped to gauge its position within the collective library."
'Collective library" is Bayard's term for the set of books that constitute our cultural literacy. This library, when it enters conversation, becomes a "virtual library" as each party in the conversation brings to the book their own "inner library." The books in these different libraries might have the same titles, but not the same content as each reader (or non-reader) brings a "screen book" (a mental image of what is in the book which may have been read, nonread, skimmed, forgotten, unknown, judged by its author, judged by its critics, judged by its reviews).
This is far from a justification of or argument for illiteracy; Bayard is never flippant about the value of non-reading, and suggests that it may be the most valuable form of reading (of which I have listed several forms in the previous parenthesis). One must be quite literate to discuss books not read because then one must be paying attention to the culture at large, understanding the shelving arrangements, as it were, of the collective library, paying very close attention to the words of the author and her critics, and using this knowledge to talk about the unread book in its context and relation to ones own creative ideas (Bayard quotes Oscar Wilde on the primacy of criticism, especially of books one has spent no more than ten minutes reading, as a creative and autobiographical activity).
In fact, the literature professor whose career crashed did so not because he had not read "Hamlet", but because he not only admitted it but insisted on the truth and verification of it during a silly parlor game. In doing so, he violated the invisible and amorphous "personal space" each of us maintains around us about what we know, what we surmise, what we pretend, and what we don't know. "In insisting on his ignorance, he excluded himself from the indefinite cultural space that we generally allow to reign between ourselves and others with which we tacitly accord ourselves--and simultaneously accord them-a margin of ignorance. We do of course know at some level that all cultural literacy, even the most highly developed, is constructed around gaps and fissures . . . that are no real obstacle to its taking on a certain consistency as a body of information" (p. 125). Interstingly, the fired literature professor's successor had not read "Hamlet" either, but wisely, no one asked him!
So, you can see, that by reading Bayard's book (although it is a book about books, so it does qualify in the librarian's world--I have a Master's in Library Science even though I don't use it in my current career!) the whole way through, I have not only nonread thousands of other books that were published since this book, but I placed myself at a disadvantage in reviewing it to Wilde's standards! (and yes, I do read every book I review, I responded in a comment to a review earlier this week with pride, a stance that I might not take so proudly now). Now you understand why I find writing this review somewhat problematic - I have by Bayard's terms thoroughly disqualified myself for the job!
In any case, this book certainly made me think and respond viscerally (and quote out loud to my wife to her annoyance) more than any book I have read in many months. I will personally commend it to my close friend who is a very thoughtful reader, and to my oldest daughter who is a second-year graduate English student and full-time adjunct professor at the Graduate Writing Center at Liberty University.
This book, which I read in its entirety, is about 25% sensible commentary wrapped in an irritating froth of supercilious b---s---. Professor Bayard has a number of observations to make about the whole exercise of reading, some of which are insightful and on point and many of which are bloody obvious. The irritating part is that each little nugget is presented with the kind of self-congratulatory smugness befitting a Faberge egg. But, for the most part, the professor doesn't scintillate … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Praise for How to Talk About Books You Havent Read:
"I probably shouldn't bring any of this up, but Mr. Bayard holds that one of the best reasons for reading a book is that it allows you to talk about yourself. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is an amusing disquisition on what is required to establish cultural literacy in a comfortable way. Lightly laced with irony, the book nonetheless raises such serious questions as: What are our true motives for reading? Is there an objective way to read a book? What do we retain from the books we've read?"--Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal
“Witty and charming and often fun.”—Sam Anderson, New York Magazine
"I read and adored Pierre Bayard’s book. It's funny, smart, and so true—a wonderful combination of slick French philosophizing and tongue-in-cheek wit, and an honest appraisal of what it means, or doesn't mean, to read."--Clare Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children
“It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune, not all must be read…A survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes…evidently much in need.”—New York Times
"In this work of inspired nonsense -- which nevertheless evokes our very real sense of insecurity about the gaps in our cultural knowledge -- reading is not only superfluous, it is meaningless. Our need to appear well-read is ...