NONFICTION: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007)

Thanks to Jordan Amadio for recommending this lush philosophical treatise on the meaning of literacy, written by a professor of French literature at Paris Huit. The title makes the book sound a little flip, but Pierre Bayard’s examination of such questions as “whether a book you have read and completely forgotten…is still a book you have read” is serious and relevant to anyone who cares about reading.

We learn that to be culturally literate is not so much about having checked off boxes on a reading list, but above all to be versed in books’ contextual relation to one another. There is not necessarily shame in not having read various canonical masterworks, Bayard argues, if one at least knows what they are about and why they are canonical:

I’ve never ‘read’ Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s quite plausible that I never will. …[But] I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation…. I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc.

Would-be-voracious readers who are short on time are validated and emboldened to hear Bayard say, “My intellectual library, like every library, is composed of gaps and blanks, but…it is sufficiently well stocked for any particular lacuna to be all but invisible.”

He goes on to demonstrate the value of reviewers and critics. Although it seems there are many artists who bemoan the critic as somehow anti-art, I personally believe that critics give meaning to art, and am glad that Bayard isn’t in disagreement. “Besides actually reading a book, there is…another way to develop quite a clear sense of its contents: we can read or listen to what others write or say about it. This tactic can save you a lot of time” and is not a cop-out shortcut because “[a] book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires.” Yes!

Bayard then develops the argument that what we remember of books may bear little resemblance to the books themselves, but rather, we each retain a personal version of a particular book based on our own experiences and sympathies. The ravages of time estrange us even farther from what we have once attentively read; “[w]e do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies.” Although we as readers may have sensed that this happens when we read, and maybe felt less intellectual for it, Bayard does us a service to get this reality out into the open, so that we can stop feeling embarrassed and start truly having a conversation.

Later, he discusses the relationship between books and personal identity. We are, in a way, the sum of what we have read since childhood. (As a corollary, he says, two people might deepen their romantic relationship by having read the same books.) “Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing…the missing elements of our personality.” By being anxious about books and about society’s expectations for our literacy, however, we fail to seize the best that literacy offers us, which is in fact creativity, self-knowledge, and freedom. Bayard makes the extraordinary move, at the end of the book, of liberating the reader from his library. Criticism, he suggests, is a way of being in touch with your soul, for which any one text is but a springboard. Reading is wonderful and necessary, but the higher good is to WRITE. “All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

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