At first glance, Pierre Bayard’s provocatively titled book, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, appears like a pithy how-to book to help doop others in conversations about literature. In our microwave culture, one might be tempted to situate Bayard’s work along with others that promise the quick, unearned benefits of a life-long pursuit (in this case, literature). Upon further consideration, however, this book addresses a deeper concern: the guilt that stifles creativity. Bayard presents a deep, psychological reflection on liberating the latent creative power in each of us.
Bayard’s brief biography on the book flap introduces him as a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst. These two categories, in that order, are a good way to approach his work. This is my second time reading this book, and each pass was through those respective lenses – first as a professor of literature, and this time as a psychoanalyst. What student can’t relate to the loaded question, “Have you read _____?” Some books and authors stand as non-negotiable entry points into certain communities spanning the conversative-liberal spectrum. My first time through this book gave me some paradigms and useful strategies to remain in conversations about literature where a simple “No” would have closed the conversation. This week’s second engagement under Bayard the psychoanalyst left with me a more enduring memory and understanding.
In the epilogue, Bayard finally discloses his purpose as an instructor: encouraging his readers “to become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations draw from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely” (182). Treating a book, or a reading list, like a binary activity (read/unread) and the proper response as a regurgitation of the information or story is a gross disservice to one’s self and the author.
I join Bayard’s quest to liberate creativity in each of us to address some of the world’s most complex problems and I, too, lament that many “forbid themselves to call on their imagination in circumstances where that faculty would be extraordinarily useful” (184). I find that there are three levels in which to address latent creativity: a theology (worldview or mindset), a framework and a methodology.
Theology. Consider Genesis 1:27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Many have endeavored to describe and elaborate on what being created in the image of God might mean. While I don’t suggest taking a verse out of context, it underscores my point to consider defining what “image of God” might mean by this single verse. Taking a grammatical approach to this verse, we must conclude that being made in the image of God includes creating. The word “create” is used three times in this poetic verse, and is the sole action of God therin.
Theological reflection doesn’t end with that popular observation. While I’m still piecing together my reading and research in a cohesive order, other words that are involved in this word cloud of thought are “curiosity,” “imagination,” “mystery,” “wonder,” “hope,” “surprise.”
Framework. We have solved most of the simple problems in the world, and even some of the complicated ones. What remains are the complex problems. The distinguishing marks of a complicated versus a complex problem is the type of solution needed and the methodology to derive that solution. A non-working car engine is a complicated problem. There is often a single issue causing that car to not work, and it takes a guru/expert to identify that solution. As ludicrous as it would be to say that every non-working car engine needs a new alternator because that’s what my car needed, so it is when in ministry contexts we assume a universal problem to complex, local, context-specific issues. The methodology for a complex issues is employing the scientific method: creating hypotheses and measurable experiments.
Methodology. That leads to the methodology of rapid prototyping, creative experiments, and an informed feedback loop. One mistake I see leaders make is looking for the single answer to a problem by sitting in a room and deliberating. Often, if they use prototype language, they really mean, “This is the direction we are going. I’m willing to make some simple tweaks, but this is the answer.” Emotional attachment is high with a single solution. On the other hand, if a leader is willing to create multiple, even conflicting experiments, they can remain more objective, open and curious as the solution is sought out.
The one place I find Bayard’s work falling short is the unspoken assumption that a foundation of literature can be built without the hard work of reading. In other words, one must read themselves into a place where they don’t need to read. Creativity and innovation work best when one builds off of tradition. Jazz pianists have spent years and years mastering basic scales which gives them the ability to improvise in a constructive way. Bayard’s suggestions would work best as developing an already existing bedrock of understanding.
Bayard closes with this (as do I): “The key, in the end, is to reveal to students what is truly essential: the world of their own creation” (184). As my NPO and research direction takes focus, I aspire to Bayard’s same end – to reveal to Cru staff and involved students what is truly essential: the world of their own latent creative and innovative potential. What better gift could I extend – than an opportunity to connect with the Creator and his liberation of latent creativity?
Pierre Bayard. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007).