How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (Pierre Bayard, 2007)
I just started reading this book last night, and I’m only about a quarter of the way in, so if I’m going to write a review I’d better do it now before I finish the book. Pierre Bayard would certainly approve of such a course of action. As he points out, I’m probably going to forget most of what I read anyway after I read it. He mentions that Montaigne had this problem, and I’ve noticed it in myself too: if I don’t immediately take lots of notes as soon as I’m done reading a book, I’ll forget what the book said and I’ll only remember a very generalized outline—if that. I used to be upset by this, but Bayard gives me a new way of seeing the problem. Maybe it’s not so bad to forget much of what I’ve read. Maybe it actually happens all the time, to everyone. As he says,
When we talk about books, then, to ourselves and to others, it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances.
What is really wrong with this approach? If we mention that we’ve read a certain book all the way through and someone asks us about it, they are certainly not expecting us to say “It went like this: [verbatim quote of the book’s entire text].” What people expect is a summary, a takeaway. That is how we relate to texts, and Bayard’s point is that we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
Another point Bayard makes that I thought was especially accurate was when he defends deliberately not reading a book on the grounds that we can only read so many books anyway, and we have to choose between them. In his words,
Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists in adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning.
I won’t comment on that; I’ll let it sink in. If I were to comment, it might convey the impression that I grappled with the text, wrestled with its meaning and implications, and am an intelligent critic whose word ought to be taken as authoritative—none of which are true.
The societal implications and assumptions surrounding the act of reading—especially of being seen reading—are complicated, and the kind of reading one is seen doing carries immense cultural baggage. Who hasn’t had the experience of working behind a desk, reading some blog post, and giving off all sorts of “look-how-productive-I-am-being” vibes, even though what you are doing has no relation at all to what your employer is actually paying you to do. What if what you are reading has vast implications for your life going forward, and the time you spend reading it is the most well-spent time you’ll have all week? All year? What if you read that same blog post in a printed format, such as a magazine or book? Your boss might get suspicious and say, “are you goofing off? Get back to work!”
And if you want to project the vibe that you are a serious thinker, just be sure to be seen reading something. But it has to be a printed text for this trick to work. I discovered this when I was in trade school about five years ago. Before class started, most of my classmates would spend their time looking at their phones; I would usually bring a codex. I gained a reputation of being some sort of deep thinker. Some people even expressed to me a desire to have more time in their life for reading. I would tell people that yes, I read a lot of books, but that means I don't have time for other things—I usually miss new movies or television, for instance. Where did this stereotype come from—that looking at a book is a better use of time than looking at a phone? Who is to say what people are doing with their phones? Maybe they are doing serious reading. I know one person who read The Brothers Karamazov on their phone.
There are a lot of books—like The Brothers Karamazov—the titles of which are tossed around in culture, and everyone is expected to be somewhat familiar with them. But we need to get it out of our heads there is some sort of “Western Cultural Canon,” some list of sacred Works of the pen of Man (and some women). It is okay to have not read a book—okay, even, to have not heard of it. It might be a hindrance to fluency in a particular subculture’s ideas and allusions to have not read certain books. But I think we are at a point in culture where the truly important books, the ones that are the most influential, get talked about often enough that we don’t have to actually read them unless we are specialists or want to engage in a serious critique.
Here are some examples. In the summer of 2020, everyone was talking about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. “Did you read White Fragility?” “I've been reading White Fragility, and etc., etc.” Enough people were thinking about it, skimming it, and reading reviews of it that the general idea of the book was represented in people’s minds with reasonable accuracy. Whether you agreed with the idea or not did not have anything to do with whether you had read the book.
Similarly, it is perfectly allowable to have an opinion about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution without actually having read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. I've heard people criticize detractors of evolution by saying “you really shouldn’t critique evolution without first reading Origin of Species.” Notable is how people don’t insist upon the theory’s adherents’ having read the book.
In the film Knives Out, which I enjoyed but don’t believe everyone else necessarily needs to watch in order to grasp the meaning of my allusion—in the scene where Joni first learns she is speaking with Benoit Blanc, she says “Wait a minute, I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you.” The context of the scene suggests that this is a silly way to affect knowledge of a person. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; but I would suggest that such hearsay is a valid method of claiming acquaintance with the contents of books. Pierre Bayard would agree.
In the spirit of Bayard’s book, here are some tweetable quotes that can be deployed when How To Talk About . . . comes up in conversation:
“Great book. You should totally read it and let me know what you think.”
“Interesting book. I didn’t finish it, of course.”
“Great book. Loved the cover art.”
And of course, when asked if you have read a translated work, such as Bayard’s, the correct reply when you haven’t actually read it is “not in English.”