How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Cover
I’ve now read Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? and I’m happy to say that I was right.
Bayard uses my Smith quotation (which he attributes to Oscar Wilde) as an epigraph for his book, and a whole section is dedicated to David Lodge’s game. The words obligation, mensonges, hypocrisie, angoisse adorn the pages so that the uncertain reader feels reassured, and a code invented by Bayard reveals the degree to which the author is familiar with the books he mentioned, in order to assuage the reader’s possible feelings of guilt: “LI: livre inconnu” (unknown), “LP: livre parcouru” (skimmed), “LE: livre évoqué” (mentioned), “LO: livre oublié” (forgotten).
Foreseeably, Bayard mixes and matches his ideas about reading a little haphazardly. A superb chapter on the “reading” of Hamlet by a West African tribe, the Tiv, illustrates how reading must, to varying degrees, be culturally shaped. This revelation is not earth-shattering, but the example is delightful. An American anthropologist, Laura Bohannan, working among the Tiv, spent some of her time in her hut, reading Hamlet. The Tiv asked her what she was doing, and Bohannan told them the story of the melancholy Dane.
But things did not go well. To begin with, the Tiv did not believe in ghosts; for them, Hamlet’s father could only be a portent sent by a sorcerer; even if the dead father could speak, he would not have entrusted young Hamlet with a mission, since the young are not to be trusted; the fact that Hamlet’s mother wasted no time in marrying Hamlet’s uncle seemed to the Tiv the right decision, because otherwise (as the wife of the chief observed), “Who will work your field during the time you’re without a husband?”
In the end, Bohannan gave up. For Bayard, it is obvious that the Tiv have a certain idea of Hamlet without having read it, and this “imaginary” book (Bayard calls it an “interior” book) has a very real value—partial, collective, but nevertheless valid.
For Bayard, to speak of books one has not read is a way of becoming a creator oneself, and the evidence he has gathered (he says) must lead to this achievement, accessible to all those whose “cheminement intérieur” (inner development) has freed them from all feeling of guilt. If he means that every reader constructs his own book (Umberto Eco limits this “freedom of interpretation” to what is acceptable to “common sense”), then, of course, I agree.
And as I have said, there are ways of engaging with a book that do not necessitate a full and detailed reading. However, I am wary, especially in these days in which cultural knowledge and intellectual pursuits are derided, of what might appear as a sound-byte approach to literature. Already Anglo-Saxon publishing companies, arguing that they are helping amateur reading groups, print at the back of many of their more interesting books “reading guides,” in which a question-and-answer vade mecum is provided to assist (so they say) readers in discussing the book. “Who is the real protagonist of Hamlet?”
“Is Gertrude a good or a bad mother?” “Would the tragedy have developed otherwise if Ophelia had learned how to swim?” To a follower of Bayard’s credo, such guides may be considered invaluable in order to talk about books one has not read.
One final remark. Before reading Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?, I judged it a pleasantly sarcastic, underhandedly anti-intellectual, slightly pretentious mixture of self-confession and cultural manifesto. I’m delighted to see that reading it confirms my early opinion. And by the way, it also supports Bayard’s provocative thesis.