How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

by Pierre Bayard and Jeffrey Mehlman

Paperback, 185 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $14 | purchase

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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
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Pierre Bayard and Jeffrey Mehlman

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Hardcover, 185 pages, St Martins Pr, $19.95, published October 30 2007 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
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Pierre Bayard and Jeffrey Mehlman

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Book Summary

Presents strategies for discussing books in social situations that readers have forgotten or haven't read, offering examples by writers such as Graham Greene and Umberto Eco.

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Excerpt: How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read


Bloomsbury

Copyright © 2007 Pierre Bayard
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-469-8

Chapter One

Books You Don't Know

(in which the reader will see, as demonstrated by a character of Musil's, that reading any particular book is a waste of time compared to keeping our perspective about books overall)

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and thus in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read.

If we take this attitude to the extreme, we arrive at the case of the absolute non-reader, who never opens a book and yet knows them and talks about them without hesitation. Such is the case of the librarian in The Man Without Qualities, a secondary character in Musil's novel, but one whose radical position and courage in defending it make him essential to our argument.

* * *

Musil's novel takes place at the beginning of the last century in a country called Kakania, a parody of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A patriotic movement, known as Parallel Action, has been founded to organize a lavish celebration of the upcoming anniversary of the emperor's reign, a celebration that is intended to serve as a redemptive example for the rest of the world.

The leaders of Parallel Action, whom Musil depicts as so many ridiculous marionettes, are thus all in search of a "redemptive idea," which they evoke endlessly yet in the vaguest of terms-for indeed, they have neither the slightest inkling of what the idea might be nor how it might perform its redemptive function beyond their country's borders.

Among the movement's leaders, one of the most ridiculous is General Stumm (which means "mute" in German). Stumm is determined to discover the redemptive idea before the others as an offering to the woman he loves-Diotima, who is also prominent within Parallel Action:

"You remember, don't you," he said, "that I'd made up my mind to find that great redeeming idea Diotima wants and lay it at her feet. It turns out that there are lots of great ideas, but only one of them can be the greatest-that's only logical, isn't it?-so it's a matter of putting them in order."

The general, a man of little experience with ideas and their manipulation, never mind methods for developing new ones, decides to go to the imperial library-that wellspring of fresh thoughts-to "become informed about the resources of the adversary" and to discover the "redemptive idea" with utmost efficiency.

* * *

The visit to the library plunges this man of limited familiarity with books into profound anguish. As a military officer, he is used to being in a position of dominance, yet here he finds himself confronted with a form of knowledge that offers him no landmarks, nothing to hold on to:

"We marched down the ranks in that colossal store house of books, and I don't mind telling you I was not particularly overwhelmed; those rows of books are not particularly worse than a garrison on parade. Still, after a while I couldn't help starting to do some figuring in my head, and I got an unexpected answer. You see, I had been thinking that if I read a book a day, it would naturally be exhausting, but I would be bound to get to the end sometime and then, even if I had to skip a few, I could claim a certain position in the world of the intellect. But what do you suppose the librarian said to me, as we walked on and on, without an end in sight, and I asked him how many books they had in this crazy library? Three and a half million, he tells me. We had just got to the seven hundred thousands or so, but I kept on doing these figures in my head; I'll spare you the details, but I checked it out later in the office, with pencil and paper: it would take me ten thousand years to carry out my plan."

This encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain encouragement not to read at all. Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain?

Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

* * *

If The Man Without Qualities brings up the problem of how cultural literacy intersects with the infinite, it also presents a possible solution, one adopted by the librarian helping General Stumm. This librarian has found a way to orient himself among the millions of volumes in his library, if not among all the books in the world. His technique is extraordinary in its simplicity:

"When I didn't let go of him he suddenly pulled himself up, rearing up in those wobbly pants of his, and said in a slow, very emphatic way, as though the time had come to give away the ultimate secret: 'General,' he said, 'if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.'"

The general is astonished by this unusual librarian, who vigilantly avoids reading not for any want of culture, but, on the contrary, in order to better know his books:

"It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. '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.' 'So,' I said, trying to catch my breath, 'you never read a single book?' 'Never. Only the catalogs.' 'But aren't you a Ph.D.?' 'Certainly I am. I teach at the university, as a special lecturer in Library Science. Library Science is a special field leading to a degree, you know," he explained. "How many systems do you suppose there are, General, for the arrangement and preservation of books, cataloging of titles, correcting misprints and misinformation on title pages, and the like?'"

Musil's librarian thus keeps himself from entering into the books under his care, but he is far from indifferent or hostile toward them, as one might suppose. On the contrary, it is his love of books-of all books-that incites him to remain prudently on their periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.

* * *

To me, the wisdom of Musil's librarian lies in this idea of maintaining perspective. What he says about libraries, indeed, is probably true of cultural literacy in general: he who pokes his nose into a book is abandoning true cultivation, and perhaps even reading itself. For there is necessarily a choice to be made, given the number of books in existence, between the overall view and each individual book, and all reading is a squandering of energy in the difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole.

The wisdom of this position lies first of all in the importance it accords to totality, in its suggestion that to be truly cultured, we should tend toward exhaustiveness rather than the accumulation of isolated bits of knowledge. Moreover, the search for totality changes how we look at each book, allowing us to move beyond its individuality to the relations it enjoys with others.

These are the relations that a true reader should attempt to grasp, as Musil's librarian well understands. As a result, like many of his colleagues, he is less interested in books than in books about books:

"I went on a little longer about needing a kind of timetable that would enable me to make connections among all kinds of ideas in every direction-at which point he turns so polite it's absolutely unholy, and offers to take me into the catalog room and let me do my own searching, even though it's against the rules, because it's only for the use of the librarians. So I actually found myself inside the holy of holies. It felt like being inside an enormous brain. Imagine being totally surrounded by those shelves, full of books in their compartments, ladders all over the place, all those book stands and library tables piled high with catalogs and bibliographies, the concentrate of all knowledge, don't you know, and not one sensible book to read, only books about books."

Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as a railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains-that is, their crossings and transfers-rather than the contents of any specific convoy. And Musil's image of the brain powerfully underscores this theory that relations among ideas are far more important than the ideas themselves.

You could quibble with the librarian's claim not to read any books, since he takes a close interest in the books about books known as catalogs. But these have a rather particular status and in fact amount to no more than lists. They are also a visual manifestation of the relations among books-relations that should be of keen interest to anyone who truly cares about books, who loves them enough to want to master all of them at once.

* * *

The idea of perspective so central to the librarian's reasoning has considerable bearing for us on the practical level. It is an intuitive grasp of this same concept that allows certain privileged individuals to escape unharmed from situations in which they might otherwise be accused of being flagrantly culturally deficient.

As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), 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. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn't read a given book, for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble on any subject.

For instance, I've never "read" Joyce's Ulysses, and it's quite plausible that I never will. The "content" of the book is thus largely foreign to me-its content, but not its location. Of course, the content of a book is in large part its location. This means that I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation, because I can situate it with relative precision in relation to other books. I know, for example, 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. And as a result, I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.

Even better, as we shall see in analyzing the power relations behind how we talk about reading, I am able to allude to my non-reading of Joyce without any shame. My intellectual library, like every library, is composed of gaps and blanks, but in reality this presents no real problem: it is sufficiently well stocked for any particular lacuna to be all but invisible.

Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the 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 discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a large part of the whole.

It can be argued, then, that a book stops being unknown as soon as it enters our perceptual field, and that to know almost nothing about it should be no obstacle to imagining or discussing it. To a cultivated or curious person, even the slightest glance at a book's title or cover calls up a series of images and impressions quick to coalesce into an initial opinion, facilitated by the whole set of books represented in the culture at large. For the non-reader, therefore, even the most fleeting encounter with a book may be the beginning of an authentic personal appropriation, and any unknown book we come across becomes a known book in that instant.

* * *

What distinguishes the non-reading of Musil's librarian is that his attitude is not passive, but active. If many cultivated individuals are non-readers, and if, conversely, many nonreaders are cultivated individuals, it is because 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.

To the unpracticed eye, of course, the absence of reading may be almost indistinguishable at times from non-reading; I will concede that nothing more closely resembles one person not reading than a second person not reading either. But if we watch as these two people are confronted with a book, the difference in their behavior and its underlying motivation will be readily apparent.

In the first case, the person not reading is not interested in the book, but book is understood here both as content and location. The book's relationship to others is as much a matter of indifference to him as its subject, and he is not in the least concerned that in taking an interest in one book, he might seem to disdain the rest.

In the second case, the person not reading abstains, like Musil's librarian, in order to grasp the essence of the book, which is how it fits into the library as a whole. In so doing, he is hardly uninterested in the book-to the contrary. It is because he understands the link between content and location that he chooses not to read, with a wisdom superior to that of many readers, and perhaps, on reflection, with greater respect for the book itself.

Chapter Two

Books You Have Skimmed

(in which we see, along with Valéry, that it is enough to have skimmed a book to be able to write an article about it, and that with certain books it might even be inappropriate to do otherwise)

The idea of overall perspective has implications for more than just situating a book within the collective library; it is equally relevant to the task of situating each passage within a book. The cultivated reader will find that the orientation skills he has developed with regard to the library function just as well within a single volume. Being culturally literate means being able to get your bearings quickly in a book, which does not require reading the book in its entirety-quite the opposite, in fact. One might even argue that the greater your abilities in this area, the less will it be necessary to read any book in particular.

The attitude of the librarian in The Man Without Qualities represents an extreme position held by few people, even among those opposed to reading, for in the end it is quite difficult to choose never to read at all. More common is the case of the reader who does not shun books entirely, but is content to skim them. The behavior of the heroic librarian is somewhat ambiguous in this regard, moreover, since although he is careful not to open any books, he is still interested in their titles and tables of contents, and so develops an impression of the work whether he means to or not.

Skimming books without actually reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them. It's even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details. Such, in any case, was the opinion-and the declared practice-of that master of non-reading Paul Valéry.

(Continues...)