book review: How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard (tr. by Jeffrey Mehlman)

Pierre, almost thou persuadest me to be a non-reader! [1]

Bayard’s book is both witty and insightful. Here are the two messages I take away from it:

1. There are lots of ways to experience from and learn from books, in addition to sitting down and reading them cover to cover.  We skim books, we hear about books, we look at the covers of books, we read reviews of books, and we forget books* (and remember them inaccurately), all of which can lead to meaningful interactions with others.

2. Being willing to fearlessly engage about books we have not read cover-to-cover (or at all) opens the door to greater creativity within us, as we are less likely to get entirely wrapped up in the ideas of others, but rather we can use whatever elements we have encountered as a springboard for our own creativity.

In each chapter, Bayard explores some element of “non-reading,” using a different book as a text. For example, he draws on Graham Greene’s The Third Man [2] as an example of how to speak in society about books we haven’t read (as the protagonist is forced to do at one point) and on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose [3] to demonstrate decoding what a book is about only from what you’ve heard about it (as the protagonist of that book must do). One chapter even uses a film as its text, none other than the brilliant Groundhog Day (on how to seduce someone by talking about books you haven’t read). Ironically, I will surely go on to read several of the books he described (but don’t worry, Pierre, I’m sure I will forget them soon after.) One of the funniest innovations is Bayard’s system of footnoting, which consists of the following abbreviations:

Note there is no marking for “Book I’ve read,” as part of the premise is that there is no book we have simply read. Even those books we have read cover-to-cover are books we have already begun to forget or to remember incorrectly.

Another fun element is a game called Humiliation, introduced in the chapter on “Not Being Ashamed,” in which players name a book they have not read but then gain a point for each person in the group who has read it, i.e., winning only by demonstrating oneself as less well-read. We played that game at a recent family event and had loads of fun humbling ourselves. (It also works with films.)

There is even a surprising revelation in the penultimate chapter “Inventing Books,” which is a significant accomplishment for a book of this genre. (It’s like The Sixth Sense [4] of literary criticism. Or The Village [5]. Or Invincible [6].)

Just as Anne Fadiman’s essay “Never Do That To A Book” in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader [7], Bayard may actually have changed my relationship to books, giving me license and a rationale to appreciate, interpret, and – most importantly – talk about books that I have experienced more casually than others.

* A friend asked me how forgetting a book can lead to a meaningful interaction: Bayard’s premise, with which I concur, is that as we forget books, what we actual remember reflects less the book and more ourselves, which is a valuable starting place for a meaningful interaction.

[1] Adapted from Acts 26:28, The Bible, BS++
[2] BH++
[3] BF+
[4] MF++
[5] MF-
[6] MF+
[7] BF++

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3 thoughts on “book review: How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard (tr. by Jeffrey Mehlman)”

    1. Yeah, I’ve slowed down a little bit. Reading just as much, just not reviewing quite as extensively.

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