I sneered at the idea of talking about books I never read. I thought this was academically dishonest to at least not try to read all of the books assigned. I have had trouble in some graduate level courses because I believed I had to really know my sources, and know what I was talking about. I never thought of this as intellectual snobbery, but in many cases I actually wanted to know all the details of what I was studying.
Growing up, the library was one of my favorite places. It was how I escaped from life’s ups and downs, and how I traversed the world. I did not plan on working in a library as a career, but this is what I ended up doing. So in reading How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, I related to the librarian in Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities, vol. 1, who never read the books themselves in the library, but only knows the titles and the table of contents of the books the library carries (Bayard 2007, 7). I help people find information without understanding the content of the information I am finding. I can discuss intelligently about many topics in electrical engineering, without understanding fully what I am talking about. I know how to find things quickly because of how information is organized. However, the danger in Bayard’s method is believing you know what you are talking about in terms of content, not just context. I may understand the bearings within the books as a system, (Bayard 2007, 10), but I do not agree that the content is not important. It really depends on why you are discussing the book.
Bayard book fits in with the philosophy of today’s society and how we live. Many times, I read news snippets on my phone, only grasping the surface of what is actually going on. Many have no need for the newspaper, because our phone or IPad gives us all of the information we need. Little do we realize in skimming information, we are relying on someone else to decide what is important for us to read, hear, and digest. Although this method of discussing information is fine with most people, this method is also seeping into the church. People are very comfortable talking about the Bible without reading it. We speak in phrases and snippets from other preachers, and assume that context is a substitute for content. We know what everyone has to say about the writing of Jesus, but do we fully understand how the context is indeed connected to the content? I do understand that one can get lost in the contents of a book itself, such as the Bible, and lose the meaning, or the context, as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. Others did not know the content of the Scriptures, but believed in Jesus, the living Word. Bayard believes it is enough to listen to what others have to say about a book to discuss it (Bayard 2007, 32), but this is not true of the Bible.
The Bible is the one book that changes the reader as they read. With the work of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God is able to cut through the clutter of our lives. It enriches the reader in a way deeper than any other book; its words are able to come back to you at the strangest times in the most appropriate situation. It is able to comfort like no other book. It is able to fill you with hope, love, and peace.
I understand that Bayard’s book is done a little tongue in cheek. Surely he wants people to buy his book and read his book on not reading. The real issue is how we receive information today, and discuss the little we have read with great vigor and sometimes passionate opinions. Perhaps Bayard’s methods are fine for those who attend dinner parties where they wish to appear well read and cultured. However in the context of reading the Bible, we have to be sure these methods do not creep into Biblical study in a way that it diminishes the way the Word is able to work in our lives.
In general terms, I may be biased, having grown up reading and enjoying reading for so many years. Perhaps it is time that I learn to read quicker, skimming, and listening to what others have to say about a book. But I think about a book’s ability to transport me to another time and place; to make me feel emotions I do not want to feel, and even to correct false ideas that I have grown attached to. I am sure that I have forgotten a lot about the books I have read, but I believe that many of the books I have read, especially the Bible, have changed my life. I do not think we can ever understand how our lives have been shaped by what we have read.
Finally, as to Bayard’s quote from Musil’s novel where the librarian is only concerned with the cataloging of books, I do not think this is true about most librarians, since even the most serious catalogers cannot resist diving into the content and reading a few books.
Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Bloomsbury, 2007.