How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Cover
There are ways of engaging with a book that do not necessitate a full and detailed reading
A French writer whose name I hadn’t heard before, Pierre Bayard, has written a book called Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? published by Éditions de Minuit in a collection aptly titled Paradoxe. A number of critics in France have written enthusiastic reviews, and the booksellers I know tell me that it’s selling well.
I haven’t read the book. More than a century ago, the Reverend Sydney Smith confessed: “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.” As usual, Smith (one of the funniest authors in the English language) is not only funny: he’s also right. In an essential sense, to criticize a book, beyond declaring whether we like it or not, calls for reflection on a given subject with which we suppose the book concerns itself.
That reflection, in order to be of any interest to another reader, should not be a parroting of the book in question, but an essay, an attempt to put forward gathered intuitions and interwoven knowledge on the subject. As a reader of criticism, I don’t much care for someone else’s pré cis of a book, though that may also be revealing, as when Shakespeare summed up the Iliad by saying: “All the argument is a cuckold and whore.”
When I agree that not reading a book should not prevent us from talking about it, I mean “not reading” in the sense of not sitting down with the book and perusing its pages from the first to the last. There are other kinds of reading that in certain cases seem to me perfectly valid. For instance:
The cursory reading:
A quick glance at Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy may give you a fair idea of the style and contents, certainly enough to form an opinion. This is Paolo and Francesca’s reading of Lancelot du Lac in Dante’s Inferno: a quick inspection and they both know that the theme of the romance is love and that it demands action. Maybe that is why Dante, cursory reader if there ever was one, feels such pity for them.
The incomplete reading:
The first and last chapters of Goethe’s Werther may not be enough to know all the details of the plot, but certainly suffice to make us love it or reject it. Borges boasted that he gave lectures on Finnegans Wake without having read more than two or three assorted episodes.
The empathetic reading:
Books that are part of our culture—the Bible, Das Kapital, The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote—become ours because they are everyone else’s, so that we can say, hand on heart, “Faust is an important book” without ever having opened it.
The social reading:
Depending on what social group embraces or derides a certain book, we can choose sides while forgoing actual perusal. We can condemn Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and praise Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil without opening it either, because we know who says they are good or bad. This method can also be called “reading by allegiance.”
The political reading:
Based on a single episode that has provoked outrage because of what it is supposed to reveal, certain books (Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion) permit a prise de position avant la lettre, that is to say, allow for an opinion based on someone else’s about a book no one seems to have read.
Of all the kinds of non-reading, this—which we might also term “reading by hearsay”—is the one that in most cases, for those who sit down with the book and read it, proves to be utterly wrong.
On this basis, what do I think of Pierre Bayard’s book? It is probably agreeable to read, winking at its audience as accomplice of the joke. “I don’t really mean it,” the title implies, “but you and I, true readers, know that we cheat at times, and that often a certain book, because of the prestige it carries, tempts us to say we’ve read it, because, as in the academic game of Humiliation played in David Lodge’s novel Trading Places, which consists of confessing to a famous book we have not read, we don’t want to appear uncultured and don’t dare say that we’ve never read Hamlet, but will allow that Spinoza’s Theologisch-Politischer Traktat is not often on our night table.”
I would say that it is meant to décomplexer the intellectuals, something akin to accusing strict readers who demand that a book be read before commenting on it of literary political correctness, a word that has become a safe-conduct for any previously inadmissible prejudice. Smith was humorously arguing in favour of intellectual freedom; I suspect Bayard is defending the right to remain ignorant.