March 2008 WLT
March 2008 WLT

Pierre Bayard. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Jeffrey Mehlman, tr. New York. Bloomsbury. 2007. xix + 185 pages. $19.95. isbn 978-1-59691-469-8

“Because I teach literature at the university level,” remarks Pierre Bayard as he launches the argument in his most recent book, superbly translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, “there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened.” Thankfully enough, he notes that most of his students are in the same boat. Yet if only one of them has been rash enough to read the text in question, humiliation looms—and thus, the urgent need for a book such as this one. Reasoning that books inevitably escape from us, even when we do read them from cover to cover, that our knowledge of books is bound up in subjectivity of experience such that we cannot speak of them objectively, and that in any case our cultural discourse, awash as it is in readings or pseudo-readings, obviates the need to spend too much time on them, Bayard challenges us to abandon our feelings of guilt about not reading the books that we feel we ought to read.

Buttressing his brief on passages culled from the likes of Montaigne, Balzac, Musil, Proust, Wilde, Valéry, David Lodge, and Natsume S»seki, Bayard sets up a list of provocative typologies: “collective libraries” assemble our “screen books,” or the objects we create from the books we have read (or have not); “inner libraries” house our “inner books,” where our experience plays upon our readings; “virtual libraries” include our “phantom books,” those ineffable things we create when we attempt to speak about our readings.

As a dyed-in-the-wool, first-page-to-last reader, I could not disagree more with Bayard’s theses; yet I have been amused, bemused, and invigorated by this book, despite the sense that the joke, inevitably, is on me. It is smart, funny, insightful, and harrowing, by turn. It is hard to fault him when he argues that what many people search for most obsessively in their reading is some image, however distant, of themselves. When, as a final gesture, he suggests that techniques of nonreading should be taught systematically and universally in our schools, it seems a proposal that is modest enough—and indisputably more humane than stewing our students and eating them.

Warren Motte
University of Colorado