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the complete review - literature
How to Talk About Books
You Haven't Read
general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author
- French title: Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus ?
- Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
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A : grand fun -- and not frivolous
See our review for fuller assessment.
Most think he's onto something -- and presents it very well
From the Reviews:
- "Bayard is not simply offering shortcuts to reading and giving tips on how to glibly cover your ignorance. This is no Literary Feigning for Dummies. Rather, he is intent on arguing that nonreading is a positive act that can be more edifying than reading and one that is more flattering to an author than actually devouring the contents of his book. (...) Whether the wry tone of his book is Bayard’s own or was added by translator Jeffrey Mehlman, there is no doubt that it accounts for its charm. The thin, ironic air of the book’s atmosphere creates a fine distance from which to view Bayard’s skeptical examination of reading and his sly valorization of nonreading. He is at his best when he pulls various rugs out from under our received ideas about reading." - Billy Collins, Bookforum
- "But it was only in the epilogue that Bayard finally convinced me of the serious nature of his intentions. It's all about creativity, he explains." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
- "Professor Pierre Bayard brilliantly exposes our ludicrous reverence for books." - Harry Mount, Daily Telegraph
- "Your reviewer's mind wandered, as she explored ways of not reading this book. Surely, she thought, books are like people, who can be unknown to us, or heard of, or "skimmed" (perhaps met) or forgotten, but never truly known ? But that is to leave out love -- for people and for books." - The Economist
- "This French best-seller is less a bluffer's guide to great literature than an intellectual defense of not reading everything. (...) (Y)ou need not pore over Bayard's often circuitous prose to grasp his argument. Skim his wittily annotated table of contents instead" - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
- "Les critiques vont détester; vous allez adorer !" - François Busnel, L'Express
- "There is a Gallic playfulness to all this, which confirms that the image of the severe Left-Bank penseur is hopelessly out of date. France is now the home of the ironic intellectual. More sober-minded Brits can struggle to get into the spirit of this kind of thing. Indeed, Bayard’s book has already been taken by some on this side of the Channel as an incitement to literary laziness. Yet if it celebrates anything it is the power of books to touch the minds of many more than the relative few who read each one. Far from being a bluffer’s guide to all those books you’ve never got round to, this is a book for true lovers of the printed word." - Julian Baggini, Financial Times
- "This is no meant-to-be-amusing bluffer's guide to famous books, or a checklist of views one might plausibly hold about them without being embarrassingly challenged. Rather, it's a witty, intelligent essay in anti-criticism (.....) (S)lim, provocative and entertaining" - Martin Levin, The Globe & Mail
- "Bayard's book is in fact denser than the early chapters suggest. It is possible to take issue with it on many points. (...) A more serious observation about the book is that it is a potboiler. Skipping nimbly between schools of thought, Bayard has set himself to recapitulate, in a playful way, theories about aesthetic response that have become familiar since the 1970s, though originating long before. (...) Much of the thinking that underlies Bayard's book is no longer particularly contentious; indeed it is little short of cliché, though this hardly spoils the enjoyment, as his style is so lively, his persona so outrageous and his flattery of the reader so skilful." - Hilary Mantel, The Guardian
- "This message is delivered in a slick and entertaining package which draws on a wide range of examples of not-reading, from literary theory and the campus novel to scenes in The Third Man. Definitely worth a read." - Jo Littler, The Guardian
- "Chapitre après chapitre, cela se transforme en franc malaise. (...) Comme d’habitude, Pierre Bayard manie en virtuose le paradoxe, et, au-delà des provocations propose une véritable théorie de la lecture et du discours sur le texte." - Alain Nicolas, L'Humanité
- "Far from the bluffer's guide the title suggests, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a missionary tract, preaching a kind of literary liberation theology -- liberation, that is, from shame at not having read a book. (...) Not all of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is persuasive, and at times the minting of paradoxes seems almost a mannerism. Mostly, though, it is a witty and painfully accurate analysis of the ways in which we get acquainted with literature and the part it can play in our lives. I would recommend that you read it, only that doesn't seem in the spirit of things." - Robert Hanks, The Independent
- "This is a witty and useful piece of literary sociology, designed to bring lasting peace of mind to the scrupulous souls who grow anxious whenever the book-talk around them becomes too specific, and either say nothing or else say too much, only to feel bad later on at having faked first-hand acquaintance with authors or titles they know they’ve either never read or totally forgotten. (...) His candour is as amusing as it is suspect, but the case he’s making is serious." - John Sturrock, London Review of Books
- "So, position, at least social position, is not a reason to buy Bayard's book about talking about books you haven't read. The jacket is nice, though -- good colors and matte paper." - Jane Smiley, The Los Angeles Times
- "Le but de Bayard n'est donc pas du tout de dénoncer une imposture, mais de défendre et promouvoir une pratique volage, indisciplinée, de la lecture." - Patrick Kéchichian, Le Monde
- "So provokant Titel und zuweilen Argumentation von Bayards Essay klingen mögen, so intelligent und amüsant ist seine Apologie des Nicht-Lesers. (...) Und so geht es Bayard eben nicht darum, was wir abfragbar von einem Buch oder einem Autor wissen (müssen), sondern darum, was wir als Leser, oder als flüchtiger Nicht-Leser, aus einem Buch machen." - Jürgen Ritte, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "His book is a vindication of ignorance. It is, however, extremely amusing and clever -- though I must add that I use the word "clever" at least partially in its English sense, that is to say meretriciously and ostentatiously intelligent rather than deeply so; it is more a search for applause than truth. (...) It is not easy to guess how far the author is being tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, there is a serious point behind the book, and it is wrong." - Anthony Daniels, New Criterion
- "It is difficult to summarise the essays, and most of them depend on playful presentation. (...) It is partly Bayard's sense of humour that prevents it from becoming yet another addition to that lucrative but forgettable niche genre: the poncey-and-partly-educational loo-book." - Sophie Ratcliffe, New Statesman
- "It turns out that Bayard’s book benefits significantly from not being read. Although it’s witty and charming and often fun, it seems to have been designed for abridgment -- it’s best when condensed into bullet points. Its argument is, despite all the psychoanalytic bells and whistles, pretty familiar. Is it news to anyone that we forget most of what we read, or that all reading is subjective ? So to sensationalize matters, he consistently leans on the counterintuitive (.....) My biggest gripe is that Bayard’s conception of reading is entirely social -- a way to rack up points at cocktail parties." - Sam Anderson, New York
- "I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading." - Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
- "Bayard has produced a witty and provocative monograph with a serious point and a rallying cry: 'We must profoundly transform our relationship to books.' His guilt-free approach to literature is an attractive one and stretches beyond his ostensible subject: often, when he uses the word 'book', this could just as well be substituted for 'experience.' Despite his predisposition, he offers entertaining close readings (some of them accurate) on a range of writers, taking in Robert Musil, Balzac and Shakespeare, as well as Groundhog Day. He has a tendency to complicate the obvious and his urbanity is occasionally annoying -- he should not be taken at face value -- but you should judge for yourself: despite what Bayard might tell you, How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read is above all worth the read." - Toby Lichtig, The Observer
- "Bayard's message is freedom from the tyranny of cultural snobbery and narrow-minded expectations. Reading it should feel like wind in your hair. Instead, his sawdust prose and overdocumentation call to mind the worst of academic writing and nearly strangle the enterprise in its crib. Being told to not read without shame from a literature professor should feel like recess. So why does it go down like arithmetic ?" - Kevin Smokler, San Francisco Chronicle
- "It is a real curate's egg of a book: parts are downright fascinating; parts are interestingly contentious; parts are pure bilge, parts are just wrong. (...) Overall, this book suffers from one glaring problem. Bayard is writing about how to talk. And in talking, without a doubt, we can gloss over, be non-committal and do not have to read the books being discussed. In hard, cold, printed prose, however, his demonstrations can come across as facetious and wrong." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
- "Pierre Bayard has written a small study which tries to establish what degree of neglect can be attained by a reader, who can still claim that he has read the book in question. (...) Amusing and interesting as Bayard’s book is, I can’t help feeling that he is really describing a social situation more prevalent in France than in England nowadays, and probably on the decline there as well. (...) The virtue of Bayard’s book with its seemingly jocular premise is to suggest that not- reading-but-talking is quite an important step on the long road towards the goal of actually reading the book. The weakness of it is that he doesn’t see that not-reading is, tragically, the only possible conclusion." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator
- "It is about where legitimate critical opinions really come from -- both in the world about us and the world within. (...) This is actually an extremely funny book, and, of course, it is full of enthusiastic examples from interesting texts that Bayard evidently knows well" - Lynne Truss, Sunday Times
- "With the question mark translated out, it looks like a marketable UK proposition (a self-help book for dinner party highbrows), but the original title better hints at what it is: one of those laboriously ludic pieces of silly-clever intellectual dandyism that pass for jeux d'esprit among French theorists. Under all the vamping, Bayard has some sensible things to say about an interesting, and relatively under-discussed, topic." - Sam Leith, The Telegraph
- "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is an entertaining but thin book. It's essentially an essay whose jeu d'esprit is stretched to the limit to reach 185 pages. Bayard could have stopped at double figures without losing anything. But as you would expect from a professor of literature at that lair of sophistry (Foucault, Deleuze) Paris VIII (or Paris 8 as it now likes to be known), Pierre Bayard mounts an elegant argument, and fortunately, unlike his colleagues in the philosophy department, has a sense of humour." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph
- "For the most part, his ideas are sharp, witty and provocative. But there is a fundamental problem: the game-playing makes us doubt the book’s more serious passages, while the serious passages lumber his attempt to write a jeu d’esprit." - Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph
- "This translation rather clumps, I fear. It's not the fault of the translator: just that dandyism doesn't cross the Channel all that well." - John Sutherland, The Times
- "At times it seems as if Bayard is looking for ever more elaborate ways to state the obvious as he weaves intricate theoretical patterns, while the psychoanalyst in him threatens to overwhelm the endeavour altogether (.....) But there is considerable pleasure to be had from this book too" - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement
- "At times it's hard to know how serious Bayard wants to be taken. Parts of his book, a best seller when first published in France, read like a parody of literary pretensions. But in challenging the line between reading and non-reading, Bayard actually whet my appetite to read more about literary characters he cites." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is an amusing disquisition on what is required to establish cultural literacy in a comfortable way. Lightly laced with irony, the book nonetheless raises such serious questions as: What are our true motives for reading ? Is there an objective way to read a book ? What do we retain from the books we've read ?" - Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a book that is almost overwhelmed by its premise.
Beginning with the title, and followed quickly by the epigraph Bayard has chosen -- "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so" (Oscar Wilde) -- it almost dares anyone to immediately close the covers and put it aside (and then, of course, to start talking about it ...).
As it turns out, the author probably wouldn't mind -- but readers would be missing something.
The questioning French title (Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus ?) is truer to the book's philosophical-speculative bent, but the US/UK publishers were probably right to drop the question mark and make it sound like a straightforward how-to manual: one can just imagine the many book-buyers who glance at it and think this is just the thing for them, a guide that can help them bluff their way through conversations which annoyingly turn to books they can't be bothered to read.
(Obviously, university bookstores will also display this title prominently and should do a booming business with students who hope to get a little edge in those required humanities courses .....)
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read isn't quite a how-to manual (though it does offer a few pointers); it should, however, satisfy even those who wanted nothing else from it, because it offers reassurance, validating not only talking about books one hasn't read but also giving a big stamp of approval on not reading per se.
No, it's not an anti-literary screed; rather, Bayard wants us to reconsider books, reading, and communication.
We still live in a time when reading is held in (relatively) high esteem.
Reading is generally considered to be 'good for you' and it is an activity that is encouraged -- strongly, in the case of impressionable youths.
As Bayard puts it: "reading remains the object of a kind of worship".
A lot of that, he argues, is based on pretty feeble delusion.
As he points out: "Reading is first and foremost non-reading."
No matter how much we read, there is much, much more that we don't.
The physical constraints alone mean that at best we can select only a sliver of what is available to us -- and so he argues:
non-reading is not just the absence of reading.
It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning.
On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.
Bayard begins his book with chapters on different ways on not reading, on books that: you don't know, you've skimmed, you've heard of, and you've forgotten.
He even suggests a system of notations to identify books with (which he hopes: "will one day be widely adopted"):
UB: book unknown to me
Each time he mentions a book (including fictional works) in the text (for the first time) he adds the appropriate notation -- and that includes, for example, his own Who Killed Roger Ackroyd ? which he categorises: FB+ (the 'F'-part more or less convincingly explained later in the book).
He points out that he deliberately leaves out the obvious -- "RB (books that have been read) and NRB (books that have not been read)" -- because he wants to push the reader to a different way of thinking about 'reading'.
SB: book I have skimmed
HB: book I have heard about
FB: book I have forgotten
++: extremely positive opinion
+: positive opinion
-: negative opinion
--: extremely negative opinion
Bayard does a nice job of presenting these different ways of not reading.
Much is obvious but worth repeating: from the fact that we forget much as soon as we read it to how our perceptions of books are formed not just by reading (or not reading) a text, but by what we hear and read about it, etc.
Bayard uses some wonderful examples in support of his theses, from Musil's librarian to forgetful Montaigne to The Third Man, David Lodge, and, of course, Oscar Wilde, -- examples that also demonstrate that a lot of his ideas are hardly new at all: not reading has long had many supporters.
(By the way: the book is worth reading just for the clever use of this rich source-material.)
What he's ultimately after is the idea that it's not the text per se that is of importance, but what the reader does with it:
It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in -- a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.
Not-reading as a creative act, that's what it comes down to to him.
It is an engagement with literature that can be revealing -- if you care to look (remember that the guy is also a psychoanalyst).
And talking about books you haven't read ... well, he thinks there's a lot to that to:
How can one deny, however, that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity, making the same demands as other forms of art ?
Just think of al the skills it calls into play -- listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative -- and you will surely find yourself convinced.
Or maybe not.
Bayard makes a very good case for the value of talking about books one hasn't read -- of engaging in communication and social interaction centred around a text.
Even if one hasn't read it, there's something to be said for being part of such a discussion.
Yet Bayard's thesis presupposes a literate society and a shared culture.
As he admits -- and even emphasises -- early on:
Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about a larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment.
It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters
, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all our discussions about books.
But this mastery is a command of relations, not any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a large part of the whole.
Easy for a Parisian professor to say -- but what about American readers ?
In a society where students long ago substituted Cliff/Sparks-notes and the like or watching video-versions of books assigned for school reading (two approaches to not reading that Bayard tellingly completely ignores)
is book-discussion across a larger part of the population even possible outside the author/text-focussed book-group approach (i.e. the Oprah-approach) ?
Since Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections the works of American fiction that have been most widely read (and not read) and discussed are of the sort where any engagement with them can hardly be considered creative (The Da Vinci Code, The Devil wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries).
There are many pockets of exceptions, but the larger whole of America is no longer a culture with any sort of collective library, and the not-reading Bayard suggests simply isn't possible there.
In his Preface Bayard speaks of literary veneration, suggesting:
This worship applies particularly to a number of canonical texts -- the list varies according to the circles you move in -- which it is practically forbidden not to have read if you want to be taken seriously.
Alas, outside tiny isolated groups (high school sci fi nerds, NYC 'literati', etc.), most Americans are unlikely to find that they are not taken seriously if they are unfamiliar with certain books: there simply are no more canonical texts (the Bible possibly the last one grimly trying to hang on, but soon to follow Shakespeare and the rest).
Bayard's defense and support of non-reading presuppose a literate/literary culture -- one where books matter, and where a significant part of the population reads widely and deeply.
In such, the argument he makes is a good one; by extension the book is also a good argument for such a literate culture, a society in which books are something to discuss and conversation about them is a basis for social interaction.
But one has to wonder whether those who are attracted to the book because of the promise it holds (or at least appears to hold) -- to free them from the obligation to read at all -- can be won over.
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is
a very good read: all aims aside, it's just damn entertaining.
But it's also thought-provoking and clever, and if Bayard occasionally gets carried away (insisting readers should welcome books in absolutely "all their polyvalence", etc.) he's on solid-enough ground most of the way.
A must-read for anyone who cares about books.
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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read:
Other books by Pierre Bayard under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Pierre Bayard was born in 1954.
He is a psychoanalyst and teaches literature at the University of Paris VIII, and he has written numerous books.
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© 2007-2016 the complete review
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