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“On Being Disingenuous”

Written by: on October 12, 2017

The title of Bayard’s book is obviously compelling. I engaged the book specifically with the interest of learning practical skills that would help me absorb books in different ways in order to make better use of my time for this program. Additionally, parishioners are constantly peddling books to me, very few of which I am either able or interested to read. I average about 4 book recommendations per week from my congregation. It would be helpful for me to know how to engage in conversation with these parishioners about books that interest them, without having to read the entire book, or really any of it for that matter. More importantly, there is a multitude of books that I need to engage without reading, for my doctoral research, and I need the practical, technical skill to do this.

Along with the author’s wit, his driving metaphors from Hamlet, Aristotle, and other literature were entertaining but entirely uninteresting to me given the purpose for which I read the book. Bayard began with a humorous argument aimed to convince the reader that there is no shame in not reading a book that you want to know about and talk about. He picked this topic up again in the section, “Ways of Behaving” and spent a considerable amount of ink in developing clever ivory tower arguments that came across like verbal ninjutsu while lacking common sense. Personally, I have not suffered from this shame of obligation that Bayard spoke about. I have, along with many others, suffered the guilt of acting as though I have read a particular book when I in fact did not. The problem was not my feeling shame, but my dishonest behavior. Or maybe my dishonest behavior was the result of the shame of obligation. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s quite odd to title a chapter, “Ways of Behaving”, but devote most of the chapter’s contents to talking about feelings rather than actual behavior.

The author did not seem to address the issue of truth telling, which is important in any situation, including talking about books you haven’t read. When entering a conversation about a book I haven’t read, it’s not that I should feel shame for not reading the book, but I should feel guilty for basically lying about it. One must then admit to not having read the book before carrying on a conversation about it. Otherwise there seems to be too much deceit at work. This is because in our culture, we are expected to read books that we are talking about. That’s the operating assumption in any meaningful conversation about a book. The author seems to ignore the value of this cultural norm, as though it can simply be disregarded. In other words, if we are to break away from the norm and talk about books we haven’t read, we can be free of this shame not by listening to a pep talk, but rather by simply being honest about what we haven’t actually read.

For instance, the author writes: To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. 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.[1]

This is a locker room pep talk more than it is a reasonable argument. “Truthfulness to ourselves” requires us being truthful to others. It seems as though the author used humor, story and metaphor to wisp the reader into a delightful reading experience and away from any substantive conversation about the ethics that are at stake throughout this book. I found these metaphors, like in many pop leadership books today, boring in their uselessness. For a book that is to be useful for developing practical technique, metaphors from Shakespeare or Aristotle only serve to fill the publisher’s required page numbers while feeding the author’s intellectual ego with the knowledge that he can be clever. When the reader sits down to read this book, there is no reason at that point to be interested in Hamlet. If one wanted to read Hamlet, she could sit by the fire with a paper book and a hot cappuccino. But when she sits at her desk to develop a research skill, she’s not likely interested in Hamlet. So, I learned to quickly do with this book what the author suggests we do with other books, despite the recommendation of Francine Prose in the Forward.[2]

While each of the Ways of Non-reading basically overlap and are therefore difficult to categorize (in other words, they all kind of blended together for me), the sections of the book that will serve me best are the sections on talking about books that I have skimmed and books that I have heard of. For the purpose of my research, I am going to have to be able to effectively skim a multitude of books and I needed practical tools more than a lesson on how to overcome shame. While the practical tools Bayard actually offered were sparse, the truth of statements like this speak greatly of the need to develop these tools: “Many of the books we are led to talk about, and which have, in certain cases, played important roles in our lives, have never actually passed through our hands (although we may sometimes be convinced of the contrary). But the way other people talk to us or to each other about these books, in their texts or conversations, allows us to forge an idea of their contents, and even to formulate a reasonable opinion of them.”[3]

It strikes me that while this statement is likely true, it’s also a call, in my opinion, to actually read these books that have played important roles in our lives, rather than to only know them in conversation. If a book is that important, then surely it’s worth my time to actually read it. Perhaps even this one.

 

[1] Bayard, P. (2010). How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read [Kindle iOS version], loc. 1678

[2] Ibid., loc. 73.

[3] Ibid., loc. 541.

About the Author

Chris Pritchett

7 responses to ““On Being Disingenuous””

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Chris, thanks for this post, I think you have a great perspective. From an ethical standpoint, I shared some of your concerns. But I also let Bayard off the hook for his approach because he clearly isn’t holding to the same moral standards as I am. (By “off the hook,” I don’t mean I see this as a grey area, but rather, his blasé approach to the ethics of honesty and integrity were not surprising to me, so I took from his insights what I could, and set aside the rest.)

    From my understanding, he was trying to make the point that none of us are ever going to be as “cultured” or “well read” as we’d like ourselves to appear to be; therefore, stop striving for such an ideal, and let books and reading be stimuli for conversation and creativity rather than ends in and of themselves. I didn’t think he was insisting that one lie about having read certain books (though he did not urge total transparency, for sure!); rather, that we learn not to deprive ourselves of stimulating conversations and interactions simply because we may not have done the reading.

    I sort of related it to my experience with BIble Study Fellowship–a very well known community Bible Study program that meets all over the world. BSF has a hard and fast rule that those who have not completed their homework are not allowed to speak in their small groups. This makes the homework (or Bible reading) the biggest power player in the group. It can silence anyone. But sometimes a person may not have had time to do the work, and yet have something valuable to contribute to the conversation. For this reason, when I was running Bible studies in a church, I never implemented the BSF rules of engagement.

    In the same way, I think on a broader literary community level, Bayard was seeking the same sort of liberation from “reading rules.”

  2. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Chris,
    You raise an important point in your post – honesty and ethics. Perhaps this conviction or fear of being disingenuous could be assuaged by the language you use when discussing the book (ie. “I’m familiar with this book” vs. “I’ve read the book”). I always tell people I want to hear their perspective of what the author is trying to say and why they came to that conclusion. This gives me some idea of where to start the discussion and what I want to challenge in their understanding (I actually enjoy debate and discussion – just for the sake of challenging someone’s thinking). I also agree with your statement that there are SOME books which you must read. Bayard gives us the freedom to make that choice!

  3. Great post Chris! You like many of us felt a little uncomfortable with the potential for being disingenuous and I appreciated you calling the author out on that, and I agree that he did not present a very good argument as much as a pep talk. I also like how you took from the book what you needed in great Adler form. Being a professional skimmer will definitely be the name of the game for our research. Hope all is well in Seattle…hope to see you soon.

  4. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Chris,
    Good point. I like how you called out the author by his use of well-known authors to try and strengthen his own point. I too am afraid that this book will encourage people to be disingenuous. Personally for myself though, it was helpful for me to learn the skills I’ll need to fly through my research reading.

  5. Hey Chris. Thank you for this post; you make a convincing argument.

    You mentioned that: “[I]n our culture, we are expected to read books that we are talking about. That’s the operating assumption in any meaningful conversation about a book.” And this is absolutely true in most situations.

    If I could come to the defense of Bayard, I would say he is different in three cultural respects. I assume faith is not critical to his worldview, though that is a big assumption. But I make that assumption given the little I know of him as a French professor and psychoanalyst. In our world, where ethics matter because of our desire for honesty and as ministry leaders, we must attempt to be always truthful.

    Secondly, he is French. As I argued in my post, I think the writing style and approach to developing an argument strikes me as typically French. The Frenchness of the way the book is written includes using hyperbole and satire, something that most Anglo-Saxon cultures don’t readily grasp.

    Finally, he is writing from the perspective of an academic. I could only imagine he is thinking of his literature students as he writes this tome. And I expect he is also thinking of his colleagues. In an academic setting such as the University of Paris, I would expect there is considerable competition and image-burnishing. Bayard is frustrated with this, and just urges everyone to admit the truth.

    My humble thoughts tonight from a transit lounge in Montreal.

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Chris,

    Great discussion on honesty. I can appreciate the need to skim and to gleen what we need from texts for our dissertation but to claim to have read a book, having not read it seems to be a question of ethics to me as well. While I probably enjoyed the book more than you, I did not agree with most of it. In fact, the section dealing with Groundhog Day made me the most upset because of his complete mistake in describing an integral scene.

  7. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Chris,

    What a great ending you wrote, “If a book is that important, then surely it’s worth my time to actually read it. Perhaps even this one.” Well written my Brother.

    Not sure if anyone else looked up the word from your title of “disingenuous” but I did and it made me think about “not being genuine” and I don’t ever want to be that. I know you don’t either, and I don’t think you are, so keep writing well and I will keep reading your good posts.

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