How to talk about books you haven’t read – Pierre Bayard
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and read no more!”
I loved this book, mostly due to its honesty. Apart from novels, which I adore, I am a famous skim reader, contents expert and appendix reviewer. I know many things about many things that I know very little about, but when combined, I know quite a bit – I think. The opening quote by Oscar Wilde, “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so”, is a spectacular antithesis to the claims of the literati.
Many years ago, I attempted to read Tolstoy’s, War and Peace, principally because it is an acclaimed masterpiece of Russian literature. It was incredibly boring. There were no heroes and far too many characters, most of whom I had forgotten within pages of having encountered them. Though I shamefully gave up, I had read enough to get the gist, but I have always been plagued with guilt. I experienced the same effect with Dostoyevsky – he was undoubtedly a fabulous thinker, but he was hardly a page-turner in print. Thus, my new friend, Pierre, has assuaged my conscience.
Reading French translated to English often feels a little stilted, but from my jottings along the way, three things caught my attention that provided a framework I found helpful:
- Books you must know about and their kind – the librarian. This was beneficial. I’d never really thought about librarians as maps. Though Bayard doesn’t make that direct comparison, librarians are like the google maps of literature. The librarian knows where to point people by understanding what books are associated with which sphere of knowledge, and also the leanings of the author within that genre. In the same way, academics understand how literature holds together within their field of expertise, even though they may not have a detailed understanding of every book. As a result, that knowledge enables us to speak across different research areas with some confidence.
- Books you need to know about to make sure you’re not wrong or aren’t repeating already established thinking or knowledge. I do this naturally, but now I can think about it more precisely. Often when writing, I start with my own thoughts as a way of gauging what I may already know. However, in doing so, I am aware that none of my thoughts are completely original (if at all). As Bayard puts it,
“In truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries — built within us over the years and housing all our secret books — come into contact with the inner libraries of others, potentially provoking all manner of friction and conflict.”
For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.”
Having a broad knowledge of previous influences without necessarily knowing the specific details of their writing gives me a frame of reference to check-out and critique my own thinking based on other material I know is out there.
- Books we have heard of but have no access to – in this case, we talk about what others say about those books. This isn’t such a problem these days as the internet has made previously inaccessible material accessible, but not always. In my early years of study, journal articles were accessed through a complex card system at the library, or through a semi-reliable inter-loan system, so it was not unusual to have no access at all. However, we did have material available that spoke to the books we needed to know about. So, if a couple of reviewers wrote in a similar fashion about the principal author, then we would speak and write as if we were commenting on the primary author too.
Interestingly, I read an online article a couple of years back titled, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” The article is based on research studying digital technology’s effect on attention span and comprehension. Clinical observations seem to show that those handling paper books comprehend more than those using digital instruments. But more worrying was the modern generations inability to remain focussed while reading. However, I have also read that an equal claim was made in the 18th century about reading had hindered the ability to listen, which was the primary way of learning prior to the development of the printing press in the 16th century. Whatever the case, the ability to engage with ever increasing amounts of information, opinion and research is not going to get easier, and Bayer’s cheeky little book is yet another useful step in handling ever-increasing volumes of written material.
 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (London: Grants Books : Kobo Edition, 2008). Epigraph
 Ibid. Chapter 1 p3
 Ibid. Chapter 5 p7
 Ibid. Chapter 3
 Maryanne Wolf, “Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound,” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf.
 James A Dewar, “The Information Age and the Printing PressLooking Backward to See Ahead,” https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P8014/index2.html (accessed September, 2016).
Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. London: Grants Books : Kobo Edition, 2008.
Dewar, James A. “The Information Age and the Printing Press
Looking Backward to See Ahead.” (1998): https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P8014/index2.html (accessed September, 2016).
Wolf, Maryanne. “Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound.” (2018): https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf