I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).
The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?
I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.
I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.
But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.
So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.
These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.