December 2007 - January 2008

Arts & Letters

‘How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read’ by Pierre Bayard

By Zora Simic

According to Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature at the University of Paris, you do not have to read books to be able to speak about them with confidence - even when standing at the lectern. What allows this subterfuge to continue is mutual complicity. Still, Bayard does not want to make readers feel ashamed of that pile of untouched volumes by the bed. Instead he demonstrates that not reading need not compromise intelligence. It may even enhance it: “With cultural literacy comes the inherent threat of vanishing in other people’s books, a threat it is vital to escape if we are to create any work of our own.”

Drawing on psychology, anthropology, pop culture and literature, Bayard considers the place of books in the postmodern world. “There is,” he writes, “a tacit understanding in our culture that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision.” Challenging this idea, he argues that not reading can improve your love life, ward off memory failure and prevent existential crises. Contrary to popular belief, Bayard claims, great literature cannot transcend time, place and culture. Rather, our reading - or non-reading - practices are shaped by our “collective libraries” and “inner books”.

These are audacious claims, and How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read is a cheeky work. With that title, Bayard is daring people not to read his book and inviting bad jokes from reviewers. He is also guaranteeing healthy sales. In an era where publications about the Greatest Books of All Time are proliferating, Bayard has intuited that perhaps what is driving the market is not so much the urge to master the canon as the need for advice on pretending that you have. All the better, too, that he is French - we love having the French lecture us on how we can eat cheese and not get fat, or how philosophy can improve our lives. Yet this book is no gimmick. Truth be told, it is reading reviews such as this one that helps us talk about books we haven’t read. Bayard’s is a different proposition; it demands more than the skim-read he ruefully suggests is best practice.

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