I read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read with my book club and, full disclosure, I was the only one who liked it. Which made for a rousing discussion!
Author Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at a French university. So, he’s French and his book has been translated into English for our reading pleasure. Professor Bayard’s prose is academic. He uses well-cited excerpts from classical literature to defend his points. He talks about Themes and The Other and the ways readers interact with The Other, internally and externally. While I generally read for diversion, I enjoyed digging my teeth into this lofty and speculative book.
In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Bayard teaches readers about nonreading, offers scenarios in which you might talk about books you haven’t read, and describes ways we behave toward nonread books and conversations about them. The first set of chapters, Ways of Not Reading, was my favorite. Bayard lays out a system for classifying books (this librarian loves that type of thing) that: we don’t know (UB), we have skimmed (SB), we have heard of (HB) and we read but forgotten (FB). Along the way, he speculates on the differences between books we haven’t read but know a lot about and books we have read but forgotten. Because, really, doesn’t that mean we’re more familiar with the one we haven’t read? And what does this mean for our cultural concept of reading and the way we internalize ideas about ourselves as cultured readers? Bayard talks about the significance of experience brought to a book by two different readers, and how this changes the book. He reminds us of the difference in experience of one book read in two periods of a life. He asks if any book can live up to the version of itself that lives inside the reader, and whether the outer book holds any real significance, since the reader adds so much of their own to each reading experience.
I was attracted to the subversive ideas about reading and nonreading that Bayard played with in his book. And I very much feel that he was playing. I have the impression that Bayard wasn’t taking himself or his ideas too seriously, which is always a draw for me.
My book club, on the other hand, was offended and insulted on behalf of readers and writers everywhere. “Not read a book and brag about it!? Never!”
I wonder what you will think.