Bayard, Pierre. 2008. How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (London: Granta Books), 185 pages, 978-1862079861
Bayard opens with a dilemma; as someone who teaches literature in a university setting, he sometimes has to talk with authority about books he hasn’t read, and often to others who haven’t read the book either. This starts him thinking – what is it not to read? How can you navigate the world without necessarily having read the books you’re supposed to? Does it matter? Does not reading empower in ways that reading cannot?
The book (which I’m here claiming to have read, though I may be recalling a book different to the one that exists on the printed page) is a cheeky pleasure, simultaneously tongue-in-cheek in its approach yet making some serious points and offering clear worked examples of struturalist, post-structuralist and post-modern notions of authorship and the roles of the author and the reader. He draws widely to make his arguments stick (from The Name of the Rose, where William of Baskerville deduces the content of the book that’s at the centre of the monastary murders without having read it; from The Third Man, where Holly Martins must pretend to be another author with a name similar to his own; from Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character has an eternity to learn how to talk off the cuff so he may impress the woman he loves).
Three sections examine in turn ways of not reading (books you don’t know, have merely skimmed, have heard of but not read, have forgotten), of being confronted (by friends and acquaintances, by lecturers, by the writer of the book you haven’t read, by someone you love) and how to behave (don’t be ashamed, impose your own ideas, invent books, talk about yourself instead).
Bayard comes round to the notion that it doesn’t matter what you’ve read or not read; not merely because the author may well have been dead since Barthes’ 1968, but because constructing your own book to talk about, real or imagined, is a set of creative acts in itself. He’s not being entirely serious, but there’s a lovely reminder here not to allow us to be judged by the literary prejudices of others, and not to be quite so precious about our own reading. Bayard would probably enjoy the idea of glancing through this review and at some point in the future, having a conversation about the book as though you were familiar with it. Who knows? Maybe the book you develop with reference to this one is better than the one that I’m claiming here to have read.