How To Blog About Books You Haven’t Read

Regulars at 317am may have noticed that I’ve been pushing the envelope lately – blogging about movies I haven’t seen one day and about romance novels I haven’t read another. Ordinarily, I’d would feel uneasy about this sort of chutzpah, but I’ve also been reading a clever little book by a French intellectual titled How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (SB**). The author, Pierre Bayard, a professor of French Literature at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst, is being serious in a playful way, or playful in a serious way, whichever you prefer, but he has managed to crank out 185 pages on the joys and ethics of conversing about, yes, books you haven’t read.

Besides emboldening me in certain of my proclivities, Bayard makes many counterintuitive yet indisputable points about the fuzziness of the border between reading and what he terms “‘non-reading.” Most helpful is his personal classification system for books, as follows:

  • UB = book unknown to me
  • SB = book I have skimmed
  • HB = book I have heard about
  • FB = book I have forgotten

Cover of How To Talk About Books You Haven't ReadIf you have ever found yourself discussing a book at a dinner party, these categories are probably quite familiar to you. You’ll note that Bayard offers no category for “book I have read.”  His reasoning is indisputable, at least to me. “Reading, “Bayard writes, “is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.”

I’m a big notetaker when reading a book precisely to stave off that process of forgetting. The ideas imprint more fully when I jot them down – at least that’s what I like to think. But I have to agree with Bayard’s formulation:

What we preserve of books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion.

Bayard also offers a usefully simple evalution system for books, to wit: ++ = extremely positive opinion; + = positive opinion; – = negative opinion; — = extremely negative opinion.

And, of course, for Bayard, not having read a book is no reason at all not to have an opinion about that book. Thus with considerable insouciance he gives us sentences like these:

 For instance, I’ve never “read” Joyce’s Ulysses*, and it’s quite plausible I never will.

(*His footnote in its entirety reads ”HB++.”)

Bayard’s point is that a properly literate reader may not have “read” Joyce, but he will be able locate Ulysses on the appropriate book shelf in the nearly-infinite library of all the books ever written and be capable of saying a couple of intelligent things about it. As he says about this masterwork:

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. And as a result, I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.

(**SB and HB++)

Here’s Bayard’s grand formulation of this principle:

As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter of not having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system,…”

Bayard calls the realm in which cultivated people discuss books the “virtual library.”

Photo of Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in BBC version of Bleak House.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in BBC version of Bleak House

Also useful is Bayard’s FB, a forgotten book. My guess is that it is a near-universal experience in attempting to recall a book read, say, in your college days that you’ll be able to dredge up only the barest minimum of a sentence or two in plot description, a setting, and a character’s name if you’re lucky. So my memory of Dickens’s great novel Bleak House (HB and FB++) would go something like this: murky murders in a murky Thames, a ludicrously drawn out law suit named Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, something about an inheritance, and a good-hearted heroine named Esther Summerson. That’s it. Sad but typical for a book I read maybe 40 years back and was most impressed with.

In my grad school days, the era in which I read Bleak House, the worst possible faux pas in my crowd – English professors encircled by wannabe-English-prof grad students – was to admit that you were unfamiliar with a book. It would have been unthinkable to say a thing like, “Oh, The Man Without Qualities – I’ve always wanted to read that but have never gotten to it.”

No, the approved pattern when Robert Musil’s novel came up would be to nod sagely and agree   or perhaps to offer a judiciously bland pseudo-statement that indicated you could place in the novel in its appropriate niche in the Great Chain of Western Literature. Something like, “I’ve always thought Musil was not as heavily influenced by Kafka as people seem to think” – even as a small voice inside your head whispered, “Did Musil come before or after Kafka?”

The highest accolade in these circles if you played the game artfully was, “So-and-so has read everything.” Said without irony. Fortunately, as Bayard points out:

One of the implicit rules of the virtual library is that we must not attempt to find out the extent to which someone who claims he has read a book has actually done so for two reasons. The first is that life in the virtual library would quickly become unlivable if not for a certain amount of ambiguity around the truth of our statements, and if we were instead forced to reply clearly to questions about what exactly we had read. The other is that the very notion of what sincerity would mean is questionable, since knowing what is meant by having read a book, as we have seen is highly problematic.

Note:  I have “read” the Table of Contents, Preface, and chapters 1 “Books You Don’t Know”; 2 “Books You Have Skimmed”;  4 “Books You Have Forgotten”; and 9 “Not Being Ashamed” of Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and skimmed chapter 12 “Speaking About Yourself.”  It’s such an insightful and amusing book that I will probably finish it.

4 Responses to How To Blog About Books You Haven’t Read

  1. Lovely post about a lovely and very interesting book which – I am overjoyed to read – was translated into English. I think we should award Pierre Bayard a middle name: Chutzpah. He most certainly has it and the combi of chutzpah, seriousness and humour … delicious.
    Same goes for your posts about books your haven’t read, or films you haven’t seen, RasoirJ.

  2. Washington Buckeye Apr 5, 2012 at 8:37 am

    Food for thought. Even better–French food for thought. That little voice that’s whispering in your ear asks a very important question, it seems to me. It’s not just literature, but history of all kinds–and especially intellectual history–that requires some kind of a fairly specific timeline. And that’s true even of scholarship that aims to be “subversive.” So, if David Lodge tells us that one of his characters is working on “Marx’s influence on Shakespeare,” we need to have a fairly conventional timeline to get the point.

    • You’re right, WB. In matters of influence, where actual dates are involved, the humanities take on the mathematical aura of science. A wrong or ludicrously impossible answer is possible. It’s no longer just a matter of how well you argue your case. For the record – Musil (1880-1942) was the senior writer, but he thought highly of the works of Kafka (1883-1924).

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