In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Paris-based professor of French literature and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, has fused French satire with sheer brilliance. While the title suggests a hack’s guide to reading-by-never-reading, the book is a thoughtful examination of the art of reading. Throughout its pages, Bayard reveals how unrealistic it is for the civilized learner to read the library of tomes on a given subject. No one has the time to read what’s already been written, much less to stay up to speed on the vast amounts of books being published on a daily basis.
That said, the author is less interested in one’s ability to keep pace with the mass production of literature and far more in one’s ability to be thoughtfully conversant about the subject matter of a book. “Non-reading,” according to Bayard, “is a genuine activity.” (pg. 12) Different than the “absence of reading,” he identifies the “true reader” as “one who cares about being able to reflect on literature.” (pg. 12)
While much of the content of this book is common sense, where it stands apart is in its liberating invitation to establish a better relationship with reading. Rather than the consumption of knowledge, to read is to interpret. It is to allow the content to be in conversation with what I know, what I think I know, what I agree with, what I disagree with, what I have read in the past, and what I have experienced. Bayard encourages us to identify books as “mobile objects” that are “animated by the subjectivity of the reader.” (pg. 148) He implores us to become untethered from “a whole series of mostly unconscious taboos that burden our notion of books,” (pg. 181) and right-size our relationship with reading.
For years, I’ve been drawn to constellations. I’m compelled by the mythical stories told by our ancestors of adventure and passion that are captured in cosmic formations such as Scropio, Cassiopeia, Orion, and Aquila. I so appreciate the imagery of unity in diversity and the celebration of both independence and interdependence that are expressed by each unique collection of stars in the night sky.
Borrowing this celestial concept, I’ve made it a priority to become surrounded by a “constellation” of leaders, coaches, and mentors who accompany me throughout my lifelong pilgrimage as a human, a white male, a husband, a father, a learner, a theologian, a faith leader, an author, and a social innovator. I exist within a “constellation” of peers who are committed to challenging and encouraging one another. As a family, we interact frequently with the idea of navigating our shared life as a constellation of individuals marked by both unity, expressed in our commitment to pursuing a mission, in relationship, and on purpose, and diversity, expressed in our celebration of one another’s uniqueness, giftedness, and independence.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was drawn to Bayard’s idea that books make up systems that are intended to provoke, inspire, irritate, and mobilize. Each book like independent stars, when linked, form constellations of resources that grow thoughtfulness, encourage discourse, and stimulate new ideas. As his expertise is in literature rather than astronomy, Bayard understands each book as “an element in the vast ensemble” he calls the “collective library” and argues that we need not know each book (star) “comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements…. The trick 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.” (pg. 117) He concludes that it is more important to understand a particular book’s role in our collective libraries than to meticulously understand the detailed arguments that lie within.
I’m impressed by the timeliness of this read in relation to our current learning location as Doctoral students. Having gained clarity on our NPO, we are now beginning to explore the vast cosmos of literature that lies in front of us. Quite literally, we’re entering into a literary Planetarium in search of the stars that form the constellations of books that will inform the next two-and-a-half years and, hopefully far beyond. In his book, Bayard offers a four-category rating system for the collective library. (Bayard, 182) I want to reflect briefly on these four categories in an effort to highlight how a conversation about books that lie within each could contribute to the formation of our research constellations.
- UB: A book that is unknown to me. While the details of this artifact are unfamiliar, the subject matter and general argument seem to dwell within the constellation, making this a book that I can reflect on in relationship with others that I’m more familiar with. Throughout the conversation, I will listen for the meta-themes to my project in order to ascertain the value and/or distinct contribution that this book would add to my project.
- SB: A book that I have skimmed. Here lies a book that I have some situational awareness of with regard to the title, its author, and its key idea. In conversation about books in this category, I will ask penetrating questions to excavate the more subtle nuances that others have picked up in their more thorough exploration of the text.
- HB: A book I have heard about. Familiarity with what others have said about books in this category will help me locate it within my constellation and reflect on the larger themes and ideas that show up within. Utilizing tools like GoodReads and Blinkist, I will dive bit deeper into the content in order to discern the role this book could play in my research.
- FB: A book I have forgotten. With humility, there are untold remarkable and unremarkable books that I have read and simply do not recall that could provide value to the research in front of me. I already have begun to scour syllabi of past course-work and annual reading lists that I have compiled in an effort to remember the dimming stars to my research constellation.
I am awakening to a whole new universe made up of constellations of literature. I’m eager to capture the essence of each, not simply to become conversant, but in order to become transformed.