How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Pierre Bayard, professor of French literature at the University of Paris, is the author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Steve Inskeep hasn't read Bayard's book, but he gets some tips on how to talk about it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A French writer is worried about the future of books, or to be more precise, the future of readers.

Prof. PIERRE BAYARD (French Literature, University of Paris; Author, "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read"): Young people read less and less. And we have to find the keys to make them come back to the books.

INSKEEP: …which is why Pierre Bayard wrote a book called "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read." If you flip through this book, you'll find quotes from great writers about skimming books. You'll find a passage from the Graham Greene story, "The Third Man." The hero of that story is trapped before an audience that questions him about books he never heard of. That story is discussed in "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read" - or at least that's what I heard about this book before we talk with the author, Pierre Bayard.

Well, congratulations on the book.

Prof. BAYARD: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: I would like to tell you that this book, "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read" is fascinating and interesting. But I need you to show me how because I have not read this book.

Prof. BAYARD: Are you sure you did not read it? It's not so easy to assert that you did not read this book. So you tell me I have not read this book, but perhaps you saw the cover, perhaps you know the title, perhaps you heard of it, perhaps you got the book and skimmed it - all these ways of reading are interesting. And I try to show there is not only one way of reading from cover to cover. So I am not so sure that you did not read my book.

INSKEEP: Well, fascinating. So it's not an issue of black or white; it's one more issue where you want to dwell on the gray.

Prof. BAYARD: Yes. And I really think that the voracious readers inhabit this gray region between reading and not reading.

INSKEEP: Well, you seem here, as I just flipped through the chapters of this book - let's say that someone at a party begins discussing a book that I don't know anything about, how do I begin expressing an intelligent opinion about that book? What should I do?

Prof. BAYARD: When you ask a question and there's a form, what should I do? I think you'll begin to enter a space of fault of guilt. And I try to liberate people from this kind of fault. I mean, the first important point is try to stop being guilty about books. So when you said the question, what should I do? I should like to answer you, first of all, it's necessary to suppress the should in our mind about books.

INSKEEP: Suppress the should - what do you mean by that?

Prof. BAYARD: Hmm. I don't want to be too precise because I should like people buy my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Are you saying I should read this book to get better advice on how to talk about books I haven't read?

Prof. BAYARD: If you are really in the necessity of finding solutions to speak about a book you have not read, perhaps one main point is to analyze the concrete situation where you are and to analyze what other person knows about this book. I am sure the person with whom you are speaking does not know the book as much as you think, you know?

INSKEEP: Okay. Thank you very much.

Prof. BAYARD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Pierre Bayard is the author of "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read." You can, if you choose, read an excerpt at npr.org.

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

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Cover
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard, hardcover, 208 pages, list price: $19.95

Preface

Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it, I have often found myself in the delicate situation of having to express my thoughts on books I haven't read.

Because I teach literature at the university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven't even opened. It' s true that this is also the case for the majority of my students, but if even one of them has read the text I'm discussing, there is a risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated.

In addition, I am regularly called on to discuss publications in my books and articles, since these for the most part concern the books and articles of others. This exercise is even more problematic, since unlike spoken statements-which can include imprecision without consequence-written commentaries leave traces and can be verified.

As a result of such all-too-familiar situations, I believe I am well positioned, if not to offer any real lesson on the subject, at least to convey a deeper understanding of the non-reader's experience and to undertake a meditation on this forbidden subject.

It is unsurprising that so few texts extol the virtues of nonreading. In deed, to describe your experience in this area, as I will attempt here, demands a certain courage, for doing so clashes inevitably with a whole series of internalized constraints. Three of these, at least, are crucial. The first of these constraints might be called the obligation to read. We still live in a society, on the decline though it may be, where reading remains the object of a kind of worship. This worship applies particularly to a number of canonical texts-the list varies according to the circles you move in-which it is practically forbidden not to have read if you want to be taken seriously.

The second constraint, similar to the first but nonetheless distinct, might be called the obligation to read thoroughly. If it's frowned upon not to read, it's almost as bad to read quickly or to skim, and especially to say so. For example, it's virtually unthinkable for literary intellectuals to acknowledge that they have flipped through Proust's work without having read it in its entirety-though this is certainly the case for most of them.

The third constraint concerns the way we discuss books. There is a tacit understanding in our culture that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision. In my experience, however, it's totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven't read- including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn't read it either. Moreover, as I will argue, it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety-or even opened it. Throughout this book, I will insist on the risks of reading-so frequently underestimated-for anyone who intends to talk about books, and even more so for those who plan to review them.

The effect of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions has been to generate a widespread hypocrisy on the subject of books that we actually have read. I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex, in which it's as difficult to obtain accurate information. Among specialists, mendacity is the rule, and we tend to lie in proportion to the significance of the book under consideration. Although I've read relatively little myself, I'm familiar enough with certain books-here, again, I'm thinking of Proust-to be able to evaluate whether my colleagues are telling the truth when they talk about his work, and to know that in fact, they rarely are.

These lies we tell to others are first and foremost lies we tell ourselves, for we have trouble acknowledging even to ourselves that we haven't read the books that are deemed essential. An d here, just as in so many other domains of life, we show an astonishing ability to reconstruct the past to better conform to our wishes.

Our propensity to lie when we talk about books is a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading, which in turn arises from a whole network of anxieties rooted (no doubt) in early childhood. If we wish, then, to learn how to emerge unscathed from conversations about books we haven't read, it will be necessary to analyze the unconscious guilt that an admission of non-reading elicits. It is to help assuage such guilt, at least in part, that is the goal of this book.

Copyright © 2007 Les Editions Minuit. English translation copyright © 2007 by Jeffrey Mehlman. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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