How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read

My first response to reading the title of this book and its author’s name was to think: "He is a man and he is French. Such a subject will come naturally to him." If this sounds both sexist and racist, I apologise. In fact, Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII – and he is also a psychoanalyst. This last fact becomes quite significant in a review of his book.
What Professor Bayard has done is to write an analysis of intellectual bluff and turn it into an elaborate system. He believes we still inhabit a reading culture in which it is obligatory to read a book thoroughly before discussing it. This, in his view, is both irksome and unnecessary. Using his own code: "SB" for books skimmed, "HB" for books heard of, "FB" for books forgotten and "UB" for books unknown to him, he attempts to demonstrate to the reader that what we have called "reading a book" is not the activity we always thought it was.
With Gallic precision he discusses the requirement to skim a book you have no time or inclination to read properly, how to discuss a book you once read but have now forgotten and how to pretend to knowledge of a book that you have never opened. "Non-reading," he believes, is a genuine, even creative activity; indeed, he boasts of his own capacity as a university teacher, "to speak consistently and serenely about books I haven’t read."
Why, one asks, might one want to engage in this game of pretence, double-bluff and confidence-trickery? We can all readily admit to having skim-read some texts; I fear reviewers are not immune to this bad habit. We all sometimes refer to books we have read in the past that are now only lodged loosely in our memory. And when we were young, ignorant and unconfident we might have occasionally bluffed knowledge of a book in order to impress or keep our end up in a conversation. But with maturity comes honesty; a wish to listen to others wiser than we are, to learn from their passion for books and to discover – or re-discover – the pleasures and consolation of reading. I say all this as an amateur reader, remembering that the literal meaning of the word "amateur" is "lover".
It is not clear from this narrative that Bayard does love books. There are too many of them and he candidly admits he derives little pleasure from the activity of reading. In approval of the non-reading librarian in Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, he states that in order to "orientate" ourselves in the world of books and to know about them, it is essential not to read individual volumes as we will lose our bearings, our grip on the whole. We must challenge the "taboo that books are sacred" and learn to "listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text". In his passionless way the author wants to liberate readers "from the burden of culture". He reserves his special contempt for those whom he terms "passive readers" – people who like nothing better than to sink into a great novel and thereby escape the daily round for an hour or two.
The intellectual sleight-of-hand of Bayard’s senior common-room remarks are bound up with his psychoanalytical training: non-readers are viewed as patients, paralysed by the respect due to literary texts and guilty at their ignorance of them. His mission is to free such people from their "inner constraints" and help them realise their own creative possibilities; all education, he announces, "should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom… to themselves become writers and artists." If we want to create we must not listen to the voices of proven artists as they will overwhelm us and stunt our originality.
As I read this book I naturally asked myself the question: are we meant to take the author seriously, or is he having an elaborate joke at the reader’s expense – a joke that is witty, lucidly argued and, on its own terms, not unpersuasive? I have not come to a definite conclusion as to the answer; every time I think he is writing tongue in cheek, he mentions another work, such as Montaigne’s Essays or Hamlet, that he frankly admits he has only skim-read but has heard enough about so as to fake knowledge convincingly. As I do not think he is lying to the reader, I will pretend to take him seriously. To his argument that a lifetime of reading cannot acquaint us with more than a fraction of what is available, so why bother to try, I respond that we go to responsible teachers and to literary critics to help guide us in our selection. Harold Bloom’s book, Genius, a compilation of the authors he has loved in a lifetime of reading, is useful here – though I should add that the word "genius" is inimical to Bayard, unless we are agreed that we are all geniuses in embryo.
We can all feel occasionally overwhelmed by the weight of books. I recall visiting Hay-on-Wye – an otherwise unpretentious town on the border between England and Wales that was taken over by a man called Richard Booth who turned it into a gigantic and permanent bookfest – and entering a bookshop that had once been a cinema. The long rows of dusty volumes quickly erected a silent screen between me and sanity; so I rushed out into the sunshine and bought an ice-cream. Thus fortified, I went for a stroll and pondered again the authors I loved. They include Jane Austen, whose Emma I am currently re-reading. If Bayard maintains it is both necessary and meritorious to skim-read Emma or to discuss it without having read it at all, he is denying himself the exquisite pleasure of one of the world’s most scintillating classics. It is no more possible to skim-read Austen than to skim-listen to a Mozart symphony. Needless to say, the word "classic" is not in Bayard’s lexicon.
Furthermore, it is a commonplace to point out that all the great writers took pains to educate themselves in their literary tradition – as a stimulus to their own imaginative work: Shakespeare read voraciously, as did Jane Austen, as did Tolstoy. What such people often have in common is a lack of university education; but they do not thereby become non-readers and it might give them a certain advantage: they do not encounter professors like Bayard to disabuse them of a love of reading.
As well as an aesthetic joy, literature can also be the spur to an enhanced sense of moral self-knowledge and discrimination. Who has not watched the ruin and redemption of King Lear without the lament "Take physic, pomp" reverberating in his own ears? I read recently of a young man who, on reading Portrait of a Lady, confessed to his mother that he hated Gilbert Osmond so much that he wanted to stab the page. In fact, mention of Henry James’s superlative creation of that elegant, cultivated, yet ultimately hollow lounge lizard, Osmond, makes me think of Pierre Bayard himself, spinning his ironic conceits before the eyes of his immature students and leading them unwittingly into his own version of Babel, where no one is able to communicate genuinely with anyone else because they are busy building up defences to hide the gaps in what they know and thus make themselves "presentable in the eyes of others."
I said at the beginning that the author is a man. In my limited experience, men are more likely to bluff about books than women, as their vanity tends to take an intellectual turn. Further, being French, the author is a natural theoretician; his book reeks of post-modern theory and in his deconstruction of texts and of the reading process he is obviously a child of Derrida and his ilk. But what about the answer to my question: is this book a game, played simply for fun? If it is, it has disquieting undertones. Post-modernists tend to take themselves very solemnly; thus I lean to the conclusion that Bayard is being more purposeful in his argument than humorous. His psychoanalytical training will also have made him more interested in the "guilt complexes" of readers than in the literary texts that might raise them beyond the narrow confines of their individual anxieties – and psychoanalysts, it must be added, are not generally jokers.
In the photo on the dust-jacket Bayard looks thin and angst-ridden; he is also dressed entirely in black. I suggest he buys himself a colourful shirt and tie and finds a job that does not, by his description, require this constant fraudulence. I have one thing in common with him: I also haven’t read Ulysses. And in accordance with his own procedures, I skim-read his book. Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.


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