How many books have you lied about reading?
When I first encountered this question in a Buzzfeed post, I sat back in my chair and gave the question serious consideration. I haven’t exactly lied about reading books, but I do talk about books I haven’t read in my classroom. Is that the same thing?
This post came across my news feed around the same time I picked up a book with an intriguing title from my library, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by a French literature professor, Pierre Bayard. The author of this book is a literature professor as well, and in our occupation, you often end up discussing themes, plots, and characters from books you haven’t read. It’s not on purpose; we don’t do it to be negligent or to get away with something. It’s simply an occupational hazard.
We just don’t have time to read everything we want to or “should.” What he attempts by instructing others on how to discuss books they haven’t read is not exactly considered virtuous. Even if literature professors, librarians, and readers all over the world are talking about books they haven’t read, it’s not likely they will admit to it. Why is that? Why would we feel the need to lie about reading books?
The author suggests three reasons:
- We feel an obligation to read.
- We feel an obligation to read thoroughly.
- We feel we must read a book before talking about it.
One of the skills I have developed while teaching literature is determining whether someone, a student, a colleague, or a friend, has actually read the book they are talking about. If I’m interested in the truth, I can probably figure it out in one or two questions. What’s more interesting to me after reading this book is the underlying beliefs about reading that their misrepresentation suggests.
So the author identifies the “risks of reading” and wants to help others assuage their guilt over not reading. Maybe my puritanical roots are too deep on this subject because I find myself unpersuaded by the argument as a whole, compelling as it is. I think my hesitance comes from conversations with some of my undergraduate students who rarely read and are not passionate about it.
Reading is fundamental to who I am. My whole professional life and a great deal of my personal life revolve around books. Books change the way you see the world and not reading books will never do this. I wonder, though, if not reading in the way the author describes, still has the power to change you.
With that dangling question, here is my understanding of the first four strategies the author believes will free you from your guilt and allow you to contribute to a conversation about a book you have yet to read or never plan to. The author writes, “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.”
Books You Don’t Know
For every book you read, you are actively choosing not to read a seemingly infinite amount of others. According to the author, the book stops being unknown as soon as it enters our perceptual field. As soon as we start to form associations, “images and impressions quick to coalesce into an initial opinion,” the book becomes known to us. As he suggests, “For the non-reader, therefore, even the most fleeting encounter with a book may be the beginning of an authentic personal appropriations, and any unknown book we come across becomes a known book in that instant.”
Strategy: the moment you meet a book, you start to form an opinion of it and articulating those associations is sometimes more profound than getting lost in the details of the words themselves.
Books You Have Skimmed
The author suggests this superpower is especially important for librarians who find themselves glancing at the table of contents and interpreting the title to build what I call situational awareness about a book. According to the author, skimming books has its place: “Skimming books without reading them does not in any way prevent you from commenting on them. It’s even possible that this is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their inherent depth and richness without getting lost in the details.” He does admit, though, that it can be difficult to discuss a book with any kind of specificity, yet some authors demand it. His central piece of evidence here is Marcel Proust, specifically because a reader can open his work to any page and find plenty to analyze and appreciate.
Strategy: build a situational awareness of a book by interpreting the title, reading the table of contents, and skimming the book as a whole.
Books You Have Heard Of
The importance here is to listen to and read what other people say about a book. If you do this well, you never even need to hold a book in your hand to discuss it at length. Every book contains a kind of logic. The book is an extension of an already existing conversation, “the book obeys a kind of internal development…and secretly share a common way of ordering reality,” and every book performs in a single historical moment and carries with it written and verbal exchanges. Paying attention to these allows the non-reader to draw conclusions and enter into a conversation about the text: “A book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires. To observe these exchanges, then, is tantamount to gaining access to the book, if not actually to reading it.”
Strategy: remember everything you can about what you’ve read or heard about a book, especially its relation to other books, the author’s body of work, and the verbal and written exchanges it inspires.
Books You Have Forgotten
If you read a book as a child, or perhaps even last week, but forgot everything you read, does it still count as a book you have read? This provocative question confronts an obvious, yet widely unacknowledged truth: every act of reading is the beginning of forgetting. “In every consideration of reading, we should remain mindful that books are linked not only to knowledge but also to loss of memory and even identity. To read is not only to inform ourselves, but also, and perhaps above all, to forget.” Serious readers acknowledge this and mourn the ending of a book similar to how they grieve the loss of a good friend. Some readers articulate this feeling as a book hangover. Once you close the book, the details are already a bit fuzzy and you try to piece together what happened.
Strategy: approach the act of reading and discussing books with humility because the act of reading is the beginning of forgetting for both you and the person you discuss the book with.
This book demands readers confront both what it means to read and not read at the same time. The most interesting part is that the evidence the author uses in each chapter stems from books by authors he has not read in their entirety (Proust, Eco, Montaigne, and Musil). His argument is still thorough and quite compelling, even if I still have a slight aversion to the idea. And therein lies the power of it.