How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read

Posted here 02 May 2020
Written 31 July 2016

Review of How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard

I haven’t read this book; I’ve only read the English translation. For all I know, both its eloquence and its minor foibles have been introduced in the translation rather than being in the original French text. So, to Pierre Bayard’s list of ways of not reading books — books you don’t know, books you have skimmed, books you have heard of, books you have forgotten — I would add books you have read only in translation.

Don’t judge this book by its title; it is emphatically not a book for bluffers or dummies. It’s a serious exploration of how cultivated people develop ways of not reading, exemplified by interesting case studies from literary works (but no nonfiction books).

I approached the book with a little trepidation, knowing that the author is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst and that some practitioners of these disciplines make implausible claims in pretentious language. I need not have worried, as this composition is credible and engaging.

An extract from the first chapter gives a flavour: “As cultivated people know… culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.” As an example, Pierre Bayard says that he hasn’t read Joyce’s “Ulysses” but knows “that it is a retelling of the “Odyssey”, that its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc.”

Many of the points made in this book resonated with me, as if I had always known them despite not having explicitly formulated them for myself. I especially enjoyed the chapter on how our knowledge of books is affected by memory and forgetting. For me, the material on forgetting was reinforced in a later chapter, which happens to discuss a book I read so long ago that my memory of it had faded to the point where I could hardly claim to know it. The book in question is David Lodge’s “Changing Places”. Having read Bayard’s discussion of it, I wondered just how much I had forgotten. I would not normally have considered re-reading it because, although I enjoyed Lodge’s early works, I disliked one of his recent novels so much that I abandoned it halfway through, and this experience irrationally put me off his earlier works. I have now set aside that irrationality and have just re-read “Changing Places”; an ironic outcome from reading a book about not reading.

In explaining why it may be possible to outline the contents of a book without having read it, Bayard points to several contributory factors. One factor is that “All works by the same author present more or less perceptible similarities of structure, and beyond their manifest differences, they secretly share a common way of ordering reality.” I mention this because I was planning to write more in this review but I won’t because you could deduce what sorts of things I would say by looking at the structure of my other book reviews.

Yet I can’t resist saying one more thing. While reading this book, it occurred to me that the ideas in it could be applied to other areas of human endeavor. Now I discover that the author has already done so, in his book “How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been”. But I haven’t read that.