How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Two people can read the same text and take away two very different impressions. In this subjectivity, there is enough ambiguity for a non-reader to bluff her way through conversations with grace and, almost, heroism.

August 1 st 2008
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Readby Pierre Bayard. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007. 208 pages.

Halfway through Pierre Bayard's latest book, I was uncertain whether it was a witty, albeit cynical, how-to guide for non-readers or the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of postmodern methods of interpretation. The puzzle only got harder by the end. One thing was certain, though: it's great fun. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a refreshing alternative to the slew of titles out there extolling "the glories of reading," which tend to make the subject about as exciting as eating your vegetables. Although he sets out to defend non-reading, Bayard uncovers some complex truths about reading and our relationship to books in our lives.

When the Modern Library list of the twentieth century's top hundred novels was released, like a lot of people I whipped out my pen and started crossing off the titles I'd read. Before long, though, I grew frustrated, because there were certain books I was tempted to cross off in spite of not having, strictly speaking, read them. Some I'd started but never finished—did that count as reading? Others I'd skimmed for a class. Quite a few I only knew through lectures, conversations, or film adaptations, and while the purist in me wouldn't count this as reading, I couldn't deny having some knowledge about them. In other words, as Bayard says, two black-and-white categories—"books you've read" and "books you haven't read"—aren't enough.

So Bayard invents a new system of notation, footnoting each title he mentions to indicate his own relationship to it:

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

And he adds intensifiers—"++," "+," "-," and "--"—to indicate his impression of the book. This system is used to great comic effect, as when Bayard references a book of his own in a footnote and adds the notation FB-, indicating that he has forgotten the book, but has a negative impression of it.

To distinguish between books as they are and books as we relate to them, Bayard proposes three kinds of book and, correspondingly, three kinds of library:

Screen Book. "Consists in large part of what the reader knows or thinks he knows about the book, and thus to the comments exchanged about it." Collective Library. "The larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment."
Inner Book. "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." Inner Library. "That set of books—a subset of the collective library—around which every personality is constructed, and which then shapes each person's individual relationship to books and to other people . . . includes the books that have left a deep impression on each subject."
Phantom Book. "That mobile and ungraspable object that we call into being, in writing or in speech, when we talk about a book. It is located at the point where readers' various screen books meet—screen books that readers have constructed based on their inner books." Virtual Library. "The realm in which books are discussed, in either written or oral form, with other people. It is a mobile sector of every culture's collective library and is located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion."

You can know (and even teach) a book without having read it, in part because not having read a book doesn't mean you're entirely ignorant about it. Bayard devotes chapters to the various ways we acquire knowledge of books short of reading them: some we know only by name, some we have skimmed, and some are familiar from the conversation of others—including reviewers. Even the books we've read don't always stay in our memory. Like Montaigne, we tend to forget both what we have read and what we have written. Our knowledge even of the books we have read is therefore a slippery, subjective thing.

Bayard takes advantage of this slipperiness to suggest methods of bluffing your way through conversations about unread books, relying on the fact that two people can read the same text and take away two very different impressions. In this subjectivity, there is enough ambiguity for a non-reader to work with:

To liberate ourselves from the idea that the Other knows whether we're lying—the Other being just as much ourselves—is thus one of the primary conditions for being able to talk about books with grace, whether we've read them or not. In truth, of course, the knowledge at stake in our comments on books is intrinsically uncertain. And the Other, meanwhile, is a disapproving image we have internalized based on a culture so exhaustive, and whose importance is so firmly drummed into us in school, that it impedes us from living and thinking.

Talking about books we haven't read begins almost to seem like an act not of deception but of heroism. Almost.

Writing with economy nad verve, Bayard builds his case for not reading, on a series of literary examples he claims at best only to have skimmed. In Musil's A Man Without Qualities (SB and HB++), we encounter a librarian who makes a point of not reading, so he can maintain a larger perspective on the books in his care. We encounter William of Baskerville, Umberto Eco's medieval detective in The Name of the Rose (SB and HB++), who can authoritatively summarize the content of a lost book by Aristotle with only the theme and his knowledge of the author as guides. Rollo Martins, hero of Graham Greene's The Third Man, guides us through the task of discussing books we haven't read (in his case, books he's assumed to have written). And Lucien de Rubempré, Balzac's artist-hero in Lost Illusions (SB, HB, and FB+), learns how to pen both praising and damning reviews of the same book without bothering to read it. These encounters and more like them constitute one of the principal pleasures of the book, giving the lie somewhat to the case in the course of advancing it.

And this is why the book is worth recommending. A straightforward guide to bluffing your way through literary chatter would be paradoxical at best. Why read a book about not reading? But starting with the premise of non-reading, Bayard levers open the subject, providing new categories that actually help us enjoy reading (and talking about it) again. While the pleasures of reading might get short shrift, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read makes for delightful reading nevertheless, promoting reading at the expense of non-reading . . . despite the stated objective.


J. Mark Bertrand is the author of three novels—Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide—Bertrand has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His non-fiction book Rethinking Worldview is used in several university and seminary courses, and his work has appeared in print or online at ByFaith, Comment, Books & Culture, and First Things. He writes about the design and production of Bibles at the popular blog