I 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).