How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
By Maria Popova
At first blush, a book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (public library) sounds at once sacrilegious in its proposition and wildly meta-ironic. Then again, it gets to the heart of a painfully familiar literary bind — that book about a fascinating sliver of science, written by a breathlessly boring academic; the fetishized Ulysseses of the world, reluctantly half-read and promptly forgotten; the Gladwellian tome that could’ve been, should’ve been, and likely at some point was a magazine article. Must we read those from cover to cover in order to be complete, cultured individuals?
Beneath the no doubt intentionally scandalizing title, psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard offers a compelling meditation on this taboo subject that makes a case for reading not as a categorical dichotomy but as a spectrum of engaging with literature in various ways, along different dimensions — books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. Literature becomes not a container of absolute knowledge but a compass for orienteering ourselves to and in the world and its different contexts, books become not isolated objects but a system of relational understanding:
As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.
But our culture, argues Bayard, is wrought with “obligations and prohibitions” that have created a repressive system full of hypocrisy about what books we have actually read — and our lies tend to be in proportion to the perceived significance of the book in question. “I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex,” he quips, “in which it’s as difficult to obtain accurate information.”
So how, then, do we navigate that system and its burden of expectations?
A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.
To engage with literature — and, by extension, with the world — in meaningful ways, argues Bayard, we need to understand the relationships between works and their position relative to each other within the collective library:
Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as a railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains — that is, their crossings and transfers — rather than the contents of any specific convoy.
Of particular note is Bayard’s conception of non-reading as a kind of curatorial choice every bit as indicative of our intellectual curiosity as the choice of reading:
Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.
As a proponent of codifying our transparency about information, I was particularly delighted by Bayard’s proposed notation system for the different levels of non-reading and subjective interpretation:
UB book unknown to me
SB book I have skimmed
HB book I have heard about
FB book I have forgotten
++ extremely positive opinion
+ positive opinion
– negative opinion
— extremely negative opinion
Citing Umberto Eco, Bayard observes:
The book is an undefined object that we can discuss only in imprecise terms, an object forever buffeted by our fantasies and illusions. The second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, impossible to find even in a library of infinite capacity, is no different from most other books we discuss in our lives. They are all reconstructions of originals that lie so deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others that, even were we prepared to risk our lives, we stand little chance of ever finding them within reach.
Bayard points out that one dimension of reading we often forget is that of time — a dimension inextricably linked to the biases, imperfections, and limited capacity of our memory, to which even the most dedicated of readers aren’t immune — furthering the portrait of reading by way of the intellectual negative space around it:
Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.
To conceive of reading as loss — whether it occurs after we skim a book, in absorbing a book by hearsay, or through the gradual process of forgetting—rather than as gain is a psychological resource essential to anyone seeking effective strategies for surviving awkward literary confrontations.
Echoing William Gibson’s notion of personal microculture and Austin Kleon’s insight that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life,” Bayard puts it beautifully:
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 once fallen in love with someone who heartily recommended to me a terrible piece of fiction, only to find out after a series of more tangible disappointments that we were wildly incompatible, I can’t help but nod wistfully at Bayard’s observation:
The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.
One of the conditions of happy romantic compatibility is, if not to have read the same books, to have read at least some books in common with the other person—which means, moreover, to have non-read the same books. From the beginning of the relationship, then, it is crucial to show that we can match the expectations of our beloved by making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.
Bayard advocates for redefining our culture’s expectations of reading, away from the linear, the absolutist, and the unbudgingly comprehensive, and towards the nonlinear, the relativist, the selective:
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.
Only in accepting our non-reading without shame can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence.
Some of Bayard’s opinions, particularly in defending the idea that we’re somehow supposed to develop our own point of view not via critical thinking but by taking cue from the impressions of others, stand in stark contrast with my own. He argues:
If a book is less a book than it is the whole of the discussion about it, we must pay attention to that discussion in order to talk about the book without reading it. For it is not the book itself that is at stake, but what it has become within the critical space in which it intervenes and is continually transformed. It is this moving object, a supple fabric of relations between texts and beings, about which one must be in a position to formulate accurate statements at the right moment.
Beneath the discussion of books, however, bubbles a larger discussion of information’s systems and paradigms of creation and consumption. In contrasting the networked knowledge and wealth of context necessary for criticism with the subjective expression at the heart of art, Bayard concludes:
Criticism demands infinitely more culture than artistic creation.
But Baynard’s keenest insight is perhaps this one, which has less to do with the social connotations of reading than with our individual experience of it:
The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in — a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.
So what is really at stake here, and why should any of it matter? Bayard offers in the epilogue:
Such an evolution implies extricating ourselves from a whole series of mostly unconscious taboos that burden our notion of books. Encouraged from our school years onward to think of books as untouchable objects, we feel guilty at the very thought of subjecting them to transformation.
It is necessary to lift these taboos to begin to truly listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text. The text’s mobility is enhanced whenever it participates in a conversation or a written exchange, where it is animated by the subjectivity of each reader and his dialogue with others, and to genuinely listen to it implies developing a particular sensitivity to all the possibilities that the book takes on in such circumstances.
He ties it back to our broken formal education system:
Our educational system is clearly failing to fulfill its duties of deconsecration, and as a result, our students remain unable to claim the right to invent books. Paralyzed by the respect due to texts and the prohibition against modifying them, forced to learn them by heart or to memorize what they ‘contain,’ too many students lose their capacity for escape and forbid themselves to call on their imagination in circumstances where that faculty would be extraordinarily useful.
To show them, instead, that a book is reinvented with every reading would give them the means to emerge unscathed, and even with some benefit, from a multitude of difficult situations.
All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.
Ultimately, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read isn’t permission to dismiss books but an ode to the very love of books, the totality of which we use as a powerful sensemaking mechanism for the world.
Published June 15, 2012