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How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Written by: on October 1, 2016

 

httabyhrI find it very clever that the table of contents for the book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard is structured in a way that you can skim it and understand what each chapter and section is intending to convey. It allows the reader to choose what they want to read in more depth. I believe Bayard did this intentionally based on his views of how books can not be read and how they can be discussed. Pierre Bayard discusses the social dilemmas rooted in what he deems obligations and prohibitions when it comes to reading a book. He believes that reading a book is not the same as discussing a book and the delineations between the two is where we find our inherent dilemmas. No one wants to openly say ,whether they are a scholar or an average person, that they did not read a book in it’s entirety. It comes with a sense of shame and discredits a person from being able to discuss or provide critical insight in regards to a given text they have not read. Bayard argues that “it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in it’s entirety–or even opened it“(Bayard, Preface). In his book, he hones in on the idea of encounter “the act of reading is disassociated from the material book; the important thing is the encounter, which might just as easily involve an immaterial object (Bayard, 36)”.   This encounter can take place within discussion (the immaterial object) with others about the material. To engage in this encounter does not have any prerequisites that that individual has fully read the text. For me, this quote drives home the basis for shifting our thinking from obligations and prohibitions around reading to having an encounter that provides meaningful engagement and learning. ” The encounter with unread books will be more enriching—and sharable with others—if the person undergoing it draws his inspiration from deep within himself. This different mode of listening to texts and to oneself again recalls what may reasonably be expected from psychoanalysis, the primary function of which is to free the patient from his inner constraints and, by the end of a journey over which he remains the sole master, to open him up to all his creative possibilities” (Bayard, 181).

As I review the list of  reading I will have to “complete” this semester, I was elated to find solace in his approach to discussing a book that I may not have read entirely or even opened. I asked myself “Where has this book been all my life?” I must admit I have practiced this art of discussion many times  whether it was in the classroom or in a casual conversation. Even though I “survived” I did feel a bit of shame because I wondered if they knew I had limited knowledge on the subject matter and yet I was very passionate about my engagement in discussing it. Bayard says that “our propensity to lie when we talk about books is a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading, which in turn arises from a whole network of anxieties rooted (no doubt) in early childhood“(Bayard, preface). Even though, I could speak “intelligently” to the subject matter the stigma attached to anyone knowing that I did not read that book is something I wanted to avoid at all costs. It is refreshing and redeeming to know that the “lie” is not truly a “lie”. According to Bayard it is only deemed a “lie” because of the way we place emphasis on the obligation to read in its entirety and how we socially prohibit others from discussing a book they haven’t read. When in actuality a person can glean greatly from a book and not dive into all the details and be just as knowledgeable as the person who read the entire book.

While  I was “Reading”  this book  I found myself going back to How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. Both Adler and Bayard would agree that at the heart of reading there lies a conversation. For Adler the conversation is with the reader and the author. The reader gleans knowledge from the author since they are the experts on the subject matter “Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book” (Adler, 49). Although Adler in his book does provide very useful ways to get to the heart of a book through the conversation with the author and engagement with asking specific questions, I tend to lean towards Bayards school of thought that “It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the “actual” book—even if it sometimes provides us momentum—and it is the writing of self that we must pursue without swerving” (Bayard, 178). I have found it to be true in my life that when I come to some form of “ah-ha” or self discovery the book or content remains with me  and I engage on a deeper level.  The text itself becomes meaningful not because of the reason I had to read it but because of the way in which I connected and engaged in discussion based on what I heard within as I read it.”Beyond the possibility of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, by leading us back to its source” (Bayard, 178).

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

11 responses to “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”

  1. Lynda Gittens says:

    In reviewing your post I was lead to remember people who know everything about everything. Do you think Bayard’s view that “It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the “actual” book, provides a support to those individuals that speak on every subject in a conversation? We referred to them as someone wanting to hear themselves talk. smile

  2. Lynda I can see where you could draw that conclusion. However, when I read it I felt as though he was addressing how we connect with what we have read. It is giving attention to our inner voice. It makes me think more about engaging with myself and not relying solely on the author to find meaning in the text.

  3. Geoff Lee says:

    The inner voice / inner library that Bayard addresses is interesting. We all react to books in different ways because of who we are, our filters, our history etc. Bayard states that we reveal ourselves and are truly creative when we discuss together books that we haven’t read. They act us foils or springboards to express what is going on in our life and thinking. This process of blogging and commenting on each other’s blogs is a case in point. There is some discussion of a book’s content, but also layers of revelation and self-expression.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “The text itself becomes meaningful not because of the reason I had to read it but because of the way in which I connected and engaged in discussion based on what I heard within as I read it”
    This is an area that I struggle with as I look at the way individuals / churches do Bible study. I still think that, if you are to study ONE BOOK in it’s entirety, that would be the Bible. That is why theological students are taught Greek and Hebrew. Every word matters. Yet, there is something to be said for having a handle on the narrative of God’s word. It seems to me that when the Bible is DISCUSSED, there is a new level of understanding it.

    • Stu I also find that when we listen to our inner voice the Holy Spirit brings things to our remembrance that allow for us to make connections that otherwise would have been missed if we didn’t listen within. It is not only the reading that we have an encounter but it is through the Holy Spirit where by as we read the scripture we understand that it is truly “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16)

  5. mm Katy Lines says:

    “The text itself becomes meaningful not because of the reason I had to read it but because of the way in which I connected and engaged in discussion based on what I heard within as I read it.”Beyond the possibility of self-discovery, the discussion of unread books places us at the heart of the creative process, by leading us back to its source”
    This returns to your blog post on the creative process reflecting the image of our Creator. If a book is a launching pad for reflection and creative response and not simply an end in itself.

    • Great connection Katy to my outside blog post. Yes I do believe that creativity is a manifestation of our image and likeness of God. He is our creator. Through creativity we work with the Holy Spirit and create something “other” in the process which in turn leads us back to the source (author) or in many cases back to God 🙂

  6. Mary Walker says:

    Ok, I repeat with Stu and Katy, “The text itself becomes meaningful not because of the reason I had to read it but because of the way in which I connected and engaged in discussion based on what I heard within as I read it.” I think you have hit on one of the most important reasons for discussing a book. In my response to Jen, I agreed that the connectivity to other people is what is really important. When he tell each other what we enjoy about a book, we reveal something about ourselves. And may I say that now that we have had an Advance together I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s posts so much more!

  7. Mary Walker says:

    Ok, I repeat with Stu and Katy, “The text itself becomes meaningful not because of the reason I had to read it but because of the way in which I connected and engaged in discussion based on what I heard within as I read it.” I think you have hit on one of the most important reasons for discussing a book. In my response to Jen, I agreed that the connectivity to other people is what is really important. When we tell each other what we enjoy about a book, we reveal something about ourselves. And may I say that now that we have had an Advance together I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s posts so much more!

  8. So true Christal! I really enjoy reading a book that gives me an “ah-ha moment”, as Oprah would say. It shifts your perspective and alters your behavior, which is a profound experience and makes the reading process all the more engaging. What author has done this for you? Also, I agree with your comparison to Bayard and Adler. I enjoyed Bayard’s approach to books better and found myself resonating with him. It’s comforting knowing we can skim and read what we need or interests us. Gets us back to the point of learning in a way that impacts us so we can impact our world. Great post, thanks!

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