How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (P. Bayard)

This is a very amusing book to read, scan, or hear about. Bayard, a French academic, unabashedly admits that he regularly discusses books he hasn’t read, hasn’t completely read, or doesn’t remember. More interesting than this amusing admission is his more challenging claim that it is sometimes “easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety” (xv). (This reminds me of an experience I had attending a screening of an art film with some friends — midway through the film I had a 20-minute snooze. Seeing as the narrative was rather sparse, I quite easily re-entered the story and the pacing of the film. When we left the theatre it became clear that I had enjoyed the film much more than any of my friends. I firmly believe that my nap-enriched viewing, despite the interruption, increased my appreciation of the film.)

Bayard describes this abnormal reading behaviour as a “forbidden subject”. He describes the “unconscious guilt of non-reading” (xvi), a concept that resonates with my own experience.

He points out quite rightly that it can be difficult to draw a line between reading and non-reading, as there are a number of different gradations from mere recognition to scanning, from quickly reading to carefully deciphering.

The passage in the first chapter describing a story by Musil might interest any librarian readers of this blog. In this story (which I have not read, but yet, neither has Bayard) a librarian describes to a patron that although he has read none of the books in the collection, he is nonetheless a very knowledgeable source about them, because he has read the spine of all of them. (I believe that the point here is something to this effect: the essence of a book is how it relates to the larger field of knowledge, and will only deliver a limited reading when read on its own.)

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