I did not read “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” at least not in its entirety. As I began to use Albert Adler’s basic principle of the second level of reading to examine Bayard’s book I felt I could not do the text much justice if I did not immediately get at the object of the book. I must not read it, I thought. If I read this, I will talk about it in such a way as to recount the content and hand over all creativity to facts with less opinion and personal insight and more obligation to report on the breadth of the book. Instead, I choose to flip to the section that interested me most and peruse the rest of the book, mining for nuggets here are there. My chapter of choice was the first in section three, “Ways of Behaving” and is titled “Not Being Ashamed”.
I chose the chapter on shame for three reasons. First, as I read the preface I realized the section on behavior was the primary purpose behind Bayard’s writing and was obviously a passion area for him as a literature professor and psychoanalyst. As he notes early on, “This advice is intended to help anyone who encounters one of these social dilemmas to resolve it as well as possible, and even to benefit from the situation, while also permitting him or her to reflect deeply on the act of reading.” Talking about a subject such as reading is much different than actually practicing the subject at hand. I was interested in his approach especially with regard to reading and shame.
Second, I was interested in the pragmatic level of applying Bayard’s analysis. The section and chapter titles led me to believe Bayard would offer a way of leaving shame behind when talking about books one hasn’t read. However, Bayard gives no guide for arriving to a place of no shame. Rather, he discusses the experience of shame around books we haven’t read by telling stories of how shame effects characters in other literary works and explaining how our public image has become so interwoven with our identity that the reader is drawn to reflect on the truth of Bayard’s statements for his or herself. By the end of the chapter, not having a road map for rooting out shame was less a disappointment because of the depth with which he drew me into the text and my own understanding of cultural shame as a reader.
To close the chapter Bayard states, “Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.” Being honest with ourselves to be our self is especially difficult when we know there are gaps between who we are and how we would like to be perceived by others. Taking the time to call out the reader behind the text creates a macro-conversation that rarely happens and caused me to pause and reflect on my own gaps and the ways I fill them and observe others doing the same.
Finally, I chose the chapter because of my own intersection with shame around being intelligent. “Our degree of cultural knowledge—which is to say, most often, our lack of cultural knowledge—is something we guard closely, and so, too, are the lies we resort to in order to conceal our foibles.” Cultural intelligence and literary intelligence is on a throne in the academy and on a pulpit in the church. With the titles of pastor or professor come expectations of wisdom and insight on many subjects not least of which is the Bible and theology.
I encounter this sense of shame, this gap between what I know and what I don’t every time I go to write or speak to a group of people. Of course I encounter this gap in conversations all the time but the knowledge gap creeps up on me when I have to speak authoritatively or persuasively to an audience. Even as recent as last Tuesday, my message titled ‘When the Struggle gets Real, Remember’ exhorted students to reconnect to Christ and the body of believers, recognizing Christ knows their suffering. The sermon referenced 1 Peter 2:11-25 and recent stories from my South Africa trip about the pastor, “All People Must Be Happy” (as his name is translated), who shared his story of persecution, forgiveness and healing on a bus in the midst of Khayelitsha along with Golden the Flower Man who found hope through making flowers out of trash. As I studied and wrote, I recognized my lack of knowledge, the incomplete thoughts and understanding I have of both the biblical text and of the people and culture I met while abroad.
My own fear of fabricating the truth and the personal, if not cultural, expectation that I must know all of the knowledge on a subject keeps me from the creativity Bayard speaks of in knowing my own mind and offering opinions from my perspective. This is where humility must come into play as Bayard references with his illustration of the Humiliation game. There is no way we can know everything. In recognizing our inability and being uninhibited by it, we are able to be open to learn and engage people more freely.
Overall Bayard’s work is a humorous and well-crafted reflection on the lightness with which we must hold texts and the humans who wrote them. Speaking about books and reading is really less the subject at hand than the readers and writers of the text and how we engage one another with words as a means, whether written or spoken.
 Pierre Bayard, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, (Bloomsbury: New York), Kindle Locations 144-146.
 Bayard, 1680-1682.
 Ibid, 1557-1559.
 Ibid, 1587.