The challenging title of Pierre Bayard’s book – but anything is possible for a Parisian intellectual

Bayard’s book created something of a stir in literary circles when it was published, in 2007. I approached this book because it touches on some fundamental aspects of how we read, and not how we claim to read. As a literature professor, he has authority, and you expect him to have read everything relevant, yet he has the temerity to suggest he has not. Unfortunately, on reading the book (which means I can now talk about it!) I found the author’s purpose was not to reveal the truth about the reading process. Beware the title of this book: Bayard’s title is  very precise. Although he describes in passing  how we read, compared to how we think we read, his real concern is precisely about talking. Imagine you are at a social gathering and you suddenly find yourself expected to talk about a book you haven’t read. How do you (in Bayard’s words) “extricate” yourself from this situation “with grace”? Dressed up with elegant phrases, lots of very Gallic paradoxes, and many lengthy examples of non-reading in literature, Bayard’s work is really a party-piece. No matter; we can extract from it what we wish, even if it was not the author’s intention (which, after all, is something that Bayard would appreciate).   

What are these fundamental points about reading that Bayard reveals? Well, we are brought up in a culture of shame – shame that we have not read more than we have. Admitting that you have not read a famous book is deeply embarrassing. That much, Bayard reveals; although his book is a kind of elegant divertissement, he does touch on some genuine points.

Unfortunately, as a reader you have to hunt for the truths about reading. What is more, the author is not lacking in vanity.

Before we get too carried away by his startling admission about the books he hasn’t read, here is an example of the author’s inconsistency – and vanity. The book blurb states he is a professor of French literature and a Proust expert. While in the book he glowingly praises not reading books but being able to discuss,  yet I distinctly remember him saying he can always tell if someone has read Proust or not. However, where in the book does he say that? I eventually found it in my print edition by glancing through it, since the book lacks an index – hardly a very time-efficient process:

Although I’ve read relatively little myself, I’m familiar enough with certain books – here again, I’m thinking of Proust – to be able to evaluate whether my colleagues are telling the truth when the talk about his work, and to know that in fact, they rarely are. [preface, page xv]

Bayard’s book deserves to be on the reading list of every literature degree, or at least, a summary of the main points. More than half of the book is taken up by lengthy digressions while the author fondly tells us the plot of several books he has read in which the author, or a character, admits to not reading something. So insistent is Bayard to describe these books that he does not really come up with a comprehensive description of reading. This post, then, will cover the aspects of reading Bayard has unearthed; a later post will examine some kinds of reading Bayard has missed.

What has Bayard revealed? I’ll list the points as bullets (and there are remarkably few of them for a book of 184 pages):

  • Reading a book is not a simple either/or. The author proposes a different categorization for indicating the degree of knowledge a reader has about a book. One of his many jokes is that none of the categories proposed by Bayard are about reading the book. You might have “know about”, or “forgotten”, but not “have read”. Here are his categories of knowledge about a book
    • UB – books unknown to me
    • SB – books I have skimmed
    • HB – books I have heard of
    • FB – books I have forgotten
  • When we talk about a book, we actually are talking about the discussion about those books, which may have very little to do with he book itself. There was  an example of this in today’s Financial Times, where a reader commented how the name of Adam Smith is used to denote a certain kind of free-market thinking that does not correspond with Smith’s own views. In the same way, we can all of us discuss aspects of Hamlet without having seen or read the play. We know the stories of Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary, of Mr Darcy, of,  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  • It is true that we have “screen memories” of books, what Bayard calls “falsified remnants of books” as our memory fades and our subjective impressions take over.

Bayard touches on (page 113) the phase of reading I would describe as “critical reflection”: I for one speak at greater length and with greater perception about books I have more or less stopped reading, which grants me the necessary distance … to speak about them accurately”. But then in his maddening way he praises his students for not knowing the texts they are talking about, because he claims too close a knowledge of the texts limits their imagination. “It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the “actual” book” [p178]

Is Bayard worth reading? Yes, he has revealed that not all books are read in the same way. He has revealed that even if we read every hour of every day for the rest of our lives, we will not read more than a tiny fraction of any research library. Yes, if you are prepared to put up with his fundamentally trivial stance. As a perceptive critic wrote in the New York Magazine:

My biggest gripe is that Bayard’s conception of reading is entirely social— a way to rack up points at cocktail parties. At the risk of sounding like the fusty old crank everyone does impressions of in the faculty lounge, I still believe in the private ecstasy of reading.

Well, I don’t go in for any “private ecstasy” idea, but I do think there is more to reading than what you say at cocktail parties. In a later post I will discuss more about the reading process, and how digital reading has changed so much of our reading processes.