When this book first arrived on my desk, it bore all the appearances of being another of the old Bluffer's Guides. Then I realised it was a translation from French, so I quickly checked to see whether the English title was radically different, as is so often the case when books are targeted at a different cultural market.
The English title is a close rendering of the original, Comment parler des livres qu'on n'a pas lus?, but with one very significant difference: the French title ends in a question mark. French readers are therefore involved in a completely different way right from the start, for rather than setting itself out to be either some sort of duffers' handbook or a slightly sneery intellectual in-joke, the French title poses a direct question: how can you talk about books you haven't read? This is the question that Pierre Bayard sets out to answer, wittily and with a wide range of examples taken from literature and film.
Bayard's premise is that almost everybody talks one way or another about books that he or she has not read, so we should acknowledge that and admit frankly, and without shame (he is not only a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII, but is also a psychoanalyst, hence shame features prominently in his analyses), that we all have the right to talk with confidence about books we have never managed to read. Once we accept this, we can start to recognise the complex relationship that we have with what Bayard calls the virtual library that is our cultural context.
Bayard's argument is carefully constructed, and takes us from an initial, almost facetious, conceit about intellectuals who make claims to knowledge that they do not have, to a conclusion where he suggests that a discussion of unread books can take us to the heart of the creative process itself.
At one point he calmly declares that as an academic he frequently discourses on books he has never read, like everyone else in his profession, but in his epilogue he turns what first appeared to be an elitist remark on its head. What we should be encouraging, he suggests, is an exploration of the creative possibilities of talking about unread books, for this will liberate us from the unconscious taboos that we have carried from our schooldays, when we were taught to think of books as "untouchable objects".
Freed from the necessity to read every word of a book, we can "truly listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text", and become creators ourselves.
Our students, Bayard argues, are still paralysed by an excessive respect for books, forced to write examination questions that demand detailed knowledge of texts they have had to memorise, and in consequence their imagination is circumscribed: "for knowing how to speak with finesse about something with which we are unacquainted has value far beyond the realm of books."
The book is, of course, in one respect an extended joke, but a joke with serious undertones. It is thoughtfully constructed, divided into three distinct sections, each of which moves Bayard's case to another level and makes his argument seem gradually less and less preposterous. Each of his 12 short chapters is illustrated by a practical example.
Section one establishes four categories of unread book: books you don't know at all, books you have skimmed, books you have heard of, and books you have forgotten. This is reminiscent of Italo Calvino's absurd set of book categories, and Bayard plays with the reader through all kinds of implicit references to unnamed writers and their works, from Calvino to Roland Barthes. We do not retain memories of complete books, he points out, only fragments that survive from partial memories.
The second section, entitled "Literary confrontations", which consists of four chapters detailing different kinds of encounters (in society, with professors, with writers and with someone you love) broadens the argument from book to the context of reading, and here his examples become less literary and more broad-ranging, including the screen version of Graham Greene's novel The Third Man, the famous example of an American anthropologist's discussion of Hamlet with the elders of the Tiv tribe in West Africa and an analysis of Groundhog Day. At times you feel that Bayard is working hard to keep a straight face.
The final section, "Ways of behaving", with examples that include David Lodge, Honore de Balzac, Natsume Soseki and Oscar Wilde, starts with urging us all not to feel ashamed by the lacunae in our reading, and to rejoice in the uncertainty that a recognition of not-reading can bring. Bayard focuses in his final chapter on Wilde's essay "The critic as artist", in which the Irish writer declares that criticism is a record of one's own soul, a civilised form of autobiography. This brings us back full circle, since the book is prefaced by a Wildean epigram: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so."
Alas, I confess I did read this book before reviewing it, but I am sure the author will be glad to know that I have since forgotten most of it. What I remember, however, is an entertaining and provocative read that has survived the process of translation into rather less elegant English than the original. But why, oh why, did we lose the (wittier) French question mark?
How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read
By Pierre Bayard, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
Published 5 November 2007