I imagined that Pierre Bayard’s book How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read must be a jokey book. But I was wrong. It’s a serious book, albeit written with a light, teasing tone. It’s also a challenge to start talking about books you haven’t read.
No matter how many books you have read you will have read only a tiny and diminishing fraction of all books. Many of these unread books—most works by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Marx’s Das Kapital, Dante’ Inferno, the Bible, the Koran, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time —are the most important books ever written, books that have shaped and made our world. You know about them, but you haven’t read them. (In fact, I have read some of them, but, as, I will explain in a moment, I am in the same position as somebody who hasn’t read them.)
“Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown,” Bayer writes, “how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain? Reading is first and foremost non-reading.”
Bayer urges you not to read these great books but to talk about them. “Cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book… it is ultimately unnecessary to have handled a book to have a sense of it and to express your thoughts on the subject.”
If you think you must read them, then skim them, argues Bayard. “Who, we may wonder, is the better reader—the person who reads a work in depth without being able to situate it, or the person who enters no book in depth, but circulates through them all?….We must guard against getting lost in any individual passage, for it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.”
Then there are all the books you have read and forgotten completely—even the fact that you read them. I was halfway through Henry James’s Wings of the Dove before I realised I had read it before. I’d completely forgotten that I’d read George Eliot’s Scenes From A Clerical Life until I went to mark it on Goodreads as “want to read” and was pointed to the words I’d written about reading the book. Bayard asks: “Is a book you have read and completely forgotten, and which you have even forgotten you have read, still a book you have read?”
And you have forgotten most of the contents of the books you have read. “Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting….What we preserve of the 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.”
Plus what we think we have read is mixed with things that have happened to us, other books, films we have seen, and commentaries we have heard or read, and much else “As soon as we begin to read, and perhaps even before that, we begin talking to ourselves and then to others about books. We will resort thereafter to these comments and opinions, while actual books, now rendered hypothetical, recede forever into the distance.”
We all have, argues Bayard, “internal books” composed from multiple sources, and my internal book may overlap little or not at all with your internal book. “What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.” When we talk about a book that we have both read (and, of course, largely forgotten) we are talking about two different books. Somebody who has not read the book can join the conversation as an equal.
When we read books, wrote Proust, we read ourselves, and Bayard agrees: “Books—whether read or unread— form a kind of second language to which we can turn to talk about ourselves, to communicate with others, and to defend ourselves in conflict. Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality…
The books we talk about, in other words, are not just the actual books that would be uncovered in a complete and objective reading of the human library, but also phantom books that surface where the unrealized possibilities of each book meet our unconscious. These phantom books fuel our daydreams and conversations, far more than the real objects that are theoretically their source….
The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. 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.”
It is better to talk about books than to read them. When we start to talk about books we start to create, we become writers. “Talking about unread books invites us into a realm of authentic creativity…. Beyond the possibility of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, by leading us back to its source. To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.”
Bayard teases. He is not advocating that we stop reading and start instead talking about books, read or unread. “Talking about books,” he concludes, “has little to do with reading. The two activities are completely separable.” We should read but we should never hesitate to talk about books we haven’t read, even on live television as a friend of mine did, remembering seminars from university when he did the same. That was virtue not idleness.
Other quotes I took from the book:
‘The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’
It is not at all necessary to be familiar with what you’re talking about in order to talk about it accurately.
The dead have but one last resort: the living. Our thoughts are their only access to the light of day.
Fluency, clarity, and simplicity, the patron goddesses of the average man.
Comedy is born from the komai—that is, from the peasant villages—as a joyous ceremony after a meal or a feast. Comedy does not tell of famous and powerful men, but of base and ridiculous creatures, though not wicked; it does not end with the death of the protagonists. It achieves the effect of the ridiculous by showing the defects and vices of ordinary men. Here Aristotle sees the tendency to laughter as a force for good, which can also have an instructive value: through witty riddles and unexpected metaphors, though it tells us things differently from the way they are, as if it were lying, it actually obliges us to examine them more closely, and it makes us say: Ah, this is just how things are, and I didn’t know it [ . . . ] Is that it?”
We 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. In the end we are left with falsified remnants of books, analogous to the screen memories discussed by Freud, whose principal function is to conceal others. Following Montaigne, we should perhaps use the term unreading rather than reading to characterize the unceasing sweep of our forgetfulness.
Freud calls the “examination dream,” in which the terrified dreamer imagines himself summoned to an exam for which he is not prepared, and which calls back to consciousness a whole series of buried childhood fears.
I propose the term inner book to designate the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it. Largely unconscious, this imaginary book acts as a filter and determines the reception of new texts by selecting which of its elements will be retained and how they will be interpreted.9
We might further speculate that every writer is driven by the attempt to discover and give form to his inner book and is perpetually dissatisfied with the actual books he encounters, including his own, however polished they may be.
books—whether read or unread— form a kind of second language to which we can turn to talk about ourselves, to communicate with others, and to defend ourselves in conflict. Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality.
The books we talk about, in other words, are not just the actual books that would be uncovered in a complete and objective reading of the human library, but also phantom books that surface where the unrealized possibilities of each book meet our unconscious. These phantom books fuel our daydreams and conversations, far more than the real objects that are theoretically their source.
To be sure, these facts are not directly stated in the texts. But like all the facts I have offered the reader in the works I have discussed, they correspond for me to what I see as the likely logic of each text and thus, as far as I’m concerned, are an integral part of them. No doubt I will be reproached, as was the artist with gold-rimmed spectacles, for talking about books I haven’t read, or for recounting events that, literally speaking, are not part of the books. However, it felt to me not as if I were lying, but rather that I was uttering a subjective truth by describing with the greatest possible accuracy what I had perceived of these books, being faithful to myself at the moment and in the circumstances when I felt the need to invoke them.
This age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think.
“I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.”