The Fine Points of Non-Reading

I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.

—Oscar Wilde

Thus reads the epigraph of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The book’s thesis is simple: you don’t need to read a book in order to talk about it.

He begins by saying that we are constrained by a culture that compels us to read thoroughly in order to allow us to talk about a book.

This prejudice, Bayard goes on, leads to guilt about not being able to read certain books and hypocrisy when we lie to others about books we’ve read: “Our propensity to lie when we talk about books is a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading.”

As opposed to such a zealous worship of reading, Bayard utilizes conceptual apparatuses culled from the French nouveau philosophers of the late 20th Century from Barthes, Lacan to Baudrillard to push non-reading as a viable enterprise.

“There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book,” Bayard opens his first chapter.

And indeed, this constitutes the primary way of dealing with books given the vast number of books that actually exist: “even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist.”

For the most part reading is also non-reading because, Bayard contends, the act of reading a book actually masks “the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking upand not opening all the other books in the universe.”

So instead of wasting time with any particular book, Bayard proposes that we develop a perspective on the totality of books.

Here, Bayard playfully follows de Saussure’s concept of the sign as consisting of a signifier and a signified which both have a purely arbitrary relationship with each other and are dependent on a system of differences.

The trick, he tells us, “is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.”

Thus, it’s not about reading any particular book “but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

This system of all books is what he calls the collective library: “the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment.”

Bu if you really have to open one book, you can resort to skimming as a way of situating each passage within a book without actually reading the whole book.

Thus you simply shift from looking into the overall relation of books with all other books to the relation of one passage with other passages within a single book.

In order to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book, you can always just listen or read what others have to say about these books. With this theory, “the act of reading is disassociated from the material book; the important thing is the encounter.”

We not only consider the text in-itself but also the exchanges the book inspires: “When we talk about books… it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances.

Thus we proceed to the privileging of discourse over an inaccessible material reality typical of post-structuralism.

Here everything is a text. But all texts escape a particular meaning or any single interpretation. There are no facts, no memory, and no history: only an unlimited and overlapping network of floating texts that are entirely contingent.

But lest you think Bayard’s non-reading manifesto as an unbearable chore to read, I must add that Bayard also takes from a rich treasury of classical to contemporary literature – from Balzac, Musil, Soseki, to Umberto Eco to –  in order to demonstrate his case.

More than the pseudo-theorizing, it is in fact the ingenious readings of texts that we have otherwise come to take for granted, which is Bayard’s way to shore up his thesis, that makes How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read a pleasant read.

And it is from this maelstrom emerge Bayard’s final conclusion that talking about books you haven’t read is a creative act – for obviously, it requires skills to make things up!

It is these skills, like “listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative,” that put to the fore the fine points of non-reading.



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