Last weekend I picked up a copy of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard from the library. It’s a slim book and I thought, if nothing else, it might make for good blog fodder. I made it through thirty pages before I decided I just couldn’t go on with it any longer. And so, I am about to talk about a book I technically haven’t read.
I have nothing against talking about books one hasn’t read. I am studying to be a librarian after all and I will not have read everything in the library. My husband is also a bookstore manager and he talks about books he hasn’t read all the time. The trick, he says, is to know enough about the book by reading the description, the blurbs, maybe the first page, and listening to what other people say about it in order to get a good sense of what it is about and who might like it. That way if someone comes into the store and says I have read all the books by such-and-such author and want to read a book by someone else who is similar, you know what books are likely to fit into that category. There are a lot of books in a bookstore. My Bookman can’t read every one of them nor does he want to. But he has to know enough about them in order to meet his customer’s needs.
Bayard is and isn’t talking about that kind of nonreading. Bayard’s nonreading goes deeper to the point of teaching and reviewing books one has not read. Valery is his shining example of how this can be done. Valéry said much about Proust without ever reading him. He did the same with Anatole France. But while he framed his nonreading of Proust as a good thing, he used his nonreading of France as a sort of statement about what was bland and unoriginal about French literature. Bayard is all approval of such an approach.
The funny thing about this book is that I began reading it very carefully so as not to miss the argument. Then I started reading a little less carefully. Before I knew it, I was skimming. And then I stopped reading. I stopped reading not because the writing was bad or because I was offended by Bayard’s argument. I stopped reading because I realized I didn’t agree with Bayard’s belief of what the point of knowing about literature is. Bayard’s argument of nonreading rests on a theory that
cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book
There is more to it, but that is the gist. I personally don’t have a theory of cultural literacy but if I did it wouldn’t be Bayard’s. I don’t read books in order to become culturally literate. I read books mainly for pleasure, to escape, to learn, for comfort, to fill time while waiting for an appointment, and probably a few other reasons.
When I read a book I situate it within my own personal collective library first and the bigger collective library of literature second. But when I situate something into the collective library of literature I generally don’t think “this book is a prime example of early 20th century literature that is showing signs of moving toward modernism” or whatever. I think more like “this book was written prior to World War One by an American expat, who else was writing at that time? What does it say about class? The human condition? Its historical context? Gender?” Sometimes I don’t even do that. Sometimes I just think, “wow, that was a ripping good read!”
Since I don’t agree with Bayard’s theory of cultural literacy and since his argument is based on it, continuing to read the book seemed rather pointless. And since my next quarter for school started up on Monday (was that ever a short break!), I didn’t want to spend my last weekend of freedom reading something I didn’t care about.