A guide for those who don't read, but wish they did

International Herald Tribune
A guide for those who don't read, but wish they did
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Renaud Monfourny/ Les Inrockuptibles
Pierre Bayard, the author of "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read."

PARIS: It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune not all must be read. In practice, primed by publishers, critics, teachers, authors and word-of-mouth, a form of natural selection limits essential reading to those classics and best sellers that become part of civilized intellectual and social discourse.

Of course, many people don't get through these books either and, long before Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" is name-dropped, they worry constantly about being exposed as philistines.

Now Pierre Bayard, a Paris University literature professor, has come to their rescue with a survivor's guide to life in the chattering classes. And it is evidently much in need. "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" has become a best seller here, with translation rights snapped up across Europe and under negotiation in Britain and the United States.

"I am surprised because I hadn't imagined how guilty nonreaders feel," Bayard, 52, said in an interview. "With this book, they can shake off their guilt without psychoanalysis, so it's much cheaper."

Here, then, Bayard reassures them that there is no obligation to read. He boasts of getting away with lecturing to students on books that he has either not read or has merely skimmed. And he recalls passionate exchanges with people who also have not read the book under discussion.

To prove he at least knows how to research, he further cites writers like Montaigne, who could not remember what he had read, and Paul Valéry, who found ways of praising authors whose books he had never opened. And he finds characters in novels by Graham Greene, David Lodge and others who cheerfully question the need to read at all.

Having demonstrated that nonreaders are in good company, Bayard then offers tips on how to cover up ignorance of a "must read" book.

Meeting a book's author can be particularly tricky. Here, Bayard said, there is no need to display knowledge of the book since the author already has his own ideas about it. Rather, he said, the answer is "to speak well of it without entering into details." Indeed, all the author needs to hear is that "one has loved what he has written."

Even in literary households, domestic life is another potentially hazardous zone because people often want their spouses and partners to share their love of a particular book. And when this happens, Bayard said, they can both inhabit a "secret universe." But if only one has read the book, silent empathy may offer the best way out.

Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided them in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book's cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the ongoing conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.

One alternative, he said, is to try to change the subject. Another is actually to admit not having read a particular book at the same time as suggesting knowledge of the so-called "collective library" into which it fits (as in, "Well, of course, I have read 'Ulysses' and hope to get to 'Finnegans Wake' soon").

However, Bayard's most daring suggestion is that nonreaders talk about themselves, using the pretext of the book without dwelling on its contents. In this way, he said, they are forced to tap their imagination and, in effect, invent their own book.

"To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books," he writes.

That Bayard enjoys the role of iconoclast is evident in the titles of some of his earlier books, including "How to Improve Failed Literary Works," in which he examines "failed" books by Proust, Marguerite Duras and others, and "Inquiry into Hamlet," in which he sets out to prove that Claudius did not murder his brother and Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark.

With his new book, he is in a sense still more subversive because "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" is not really what it appears to be. "It is told by a fictional personality who boasts about not reading and is obviously not me," he explained. "This is not a book written by a nonreader."

But he chose this device, he said, because he wanted to help people conquer their fear of culture by challenging the way that literature is presented to both students and the public at large in France.

"We are taught only one way of reading," he said. "Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It's a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. 'You have to read all of Proust.' They were traumatized."

"They see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of 'knowledge,'" he went on. "But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book."

So, yes, he conceded, his true aim is actually to make people read more — but with more freedom. "I want people to learn to live with books," he said. "I want to help people organize their own paths through culture. Also those outside the written word, those who are so attached to the image that it's difficult to bring them back."

Then, he was asked, why did he write a book that could pass as a primer to dumbing-down?

"I like to write funny books," he said. "I try to use humor to deal with complex subjects."

P.S. I was tempted not to — but I did read Bayard's book.

E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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