At first glance, a book called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (public library)” sounds both sacrilegious and meta-ironic at the same time. That book about a fascinating sliver of science written by a boring academic, the fetishized Ulysses of the world, the Gladwellian tome that could’ve been, should’ve been, and likely at some point was a magazine article. It’s a common literary bind, though. In order for us to be complete and cultured, we must read these books from cover to cover, right? Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and a literature professor at the University of Paris, has written a fascinating book about this taboo subject. In it, he makes the case that reading isn’t a one-size-fits-all dichotomy, but rather a range of different ways we interact with literature. We read books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, and even books we’ve never opened. Literature is no longer a container of absolute knowledge, but a compass for orienting ourselves to and in the world and its different contexts. Books become not isolated objects, but a system for understanding how they fit together.
The more you know about culture, the more you realize that it’s all about where you’re coming from. Being cultivated isn’t about having read a specific book. It’s about being able to find your way around books as a system, which means you need to know that they are a system and be able to find each element in relation to the others. There is less importance in the inside of the book than there is in the outside. This is because what matters in a book are other books that are next to it, not the book itself. But our culture, says Bayard, is full of “obligations and prohibitions” that make us lie about what books we read, and our lies tend to be bigger the more important the book in question is thought to be. Besides finance and sex, he says, “I know few areas of private life, except for finance and sex, in which it’s as hard to get accurate information.” So how do we deal with that system and all of the expectations that come with it?A book is part of the “collective library,” which I’ve called. We don’t need to know everything about it in order to appreciate any of its parts. In order to give a book meaning, you need to know where it is in the library. This gives it meaning in the same way that a word has a meaning when it is used with other words.
To understand literature and the world in meaningful ways, Bayard says, we need to know how works are connected and how they fit together in the library as a whole. If you want to be a well-educated person, you should pay more attention to these connections and correlations than any single book, just like a railroad switchman should pay more attention to the connections and correlations between trains than the contents of any single convoy. To be especially interesting is Bayard’s idea that we can choose not to read, just like we can choose to read, as a way to show how interested we are in learning. Non-reading is not just not reading. It is a real thing to do, one that involves taking a position in front of a huge wave of books that protects you from drowning. Because of that, it should be defended and even taught. According to Umberto Eco, Bayard says:The book is an undefined object that we can only talk about in vague terms, an object that is always tossed around by our fantasies and illusions. No matter how big your library is, you can never find the second volume of Aristotle’s Poetry. This isn’t any different from the other books we talk about. It doesn’t matter if we were willing to risk our lives to find them, even if we were willing to risk our lives. Even if we were willing to risk our lives, we would have little chance of ever finding them. Bayard says that one thing we often forget about when we read is that time is a big part of it. This is because time is linked to our biases, imperfections, and limited memory capacity, which even the most dedicated readers can’t escape. Reading isn’t just about getting to know a text or learning new things; it’s also, from the very start, a process of forgetting.
To think of reading as a loss, even if we only skim a book, absorb a book by hearing about it, or forget about it over time, is an important psychological tool for anyone who wants to avoid unpleasant literary confrontations.Bayard sums up William Gibson’s idea of a “personal microculture” and Austin Kleon’s idea that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” In reality, we don’t talk about a single book on its own. Instead, a whole set of books always enters the conversation through the door of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete idea of how culture should be. Every time we have a conversation like this, our inner libraries, which we have built up over the years and which contain all of our secret books, come into contact with the inner libraries of other people, which can cause friction and conflict. Because we are more than just places to keep our inner libraries safe. We are the sum of all the books we have read. These books have made us who we are, and they can’t be taken away from us without making us sad. Bayard: I can’t help but nod wistfully when he says that I once fell in love with someone who told me to read a bad book, only to find out later that we were wildly incompatible. They show us a picture of a whole world that we secretly live in, and we want the other person to play a part in it.
People who have a good romantic compatibility need to have read at least some books together, even if they don’t agree on all of them. This means that they also need to not have read the same books. We need to show that we can meet the needs of our partner from the start of the relationship by making him or her feel like our inner libraries are close by. Bayard wants to change the way people think about reading. Instead of thinking about reading in a linear, absolute way, he wants to think about it in a nonlinear, relative way, and pick and choose what to read.
To be able to talk about books we haven’t read without feeling ashamed, we should let go of the image of cultural literacy without gaps that comes from our families and schools. We can work for this image for a lifetime and never meet it. Truth for others is less important than truthfulness for ourselves, which can only be achieved by people who let go of the pressure to appear well-educated, which stops us from being ourselves. People who don’t read can only start to pay attention to what’s at stake if they don’t feel ashamed about it. It isn’t a book, but a complicated interpersonal situation, which is more important than the book itself.
There are a lot of things about Bayard’s ideas that don’t line up with mine. For example, he thinks that we should be able to figure out our own point of view without using critical thinking but by taking the impressions of others into account. He claims: are some books that aren’t really books at all. They’re more like the whole of the conversation that people have about them. We have to pay attention to that conversation in order to talk about a book without reading the book. For, it’s not the book itself that’s at risk, but what the book has become in the critical space where it acts and changes over time. It is this moving object, a flexible web of connections between texts and people, about which one must be able to say the right thing at the right time. Underneath the discussion of books, there is a bigger conversation about how information works and how people make and consume it. Critics need to know about a lot of different things to be able to write a good review, but art is all about expressing your own thoughts and feelings. Criticism requires far more knowledge than making art.
That’s not to say that Baynard doesn’t have a lot of good ideas. His best one, he says, has nothing to do with the social meanings of reading but with our own personal experience of it:
When we read, we have to keep in mind that the way we get to know ourselves has to go through books. It is a journey through books that a good reader takes part in. A good reader knows that every book is a part of him and can give him access to it, if he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.
So, what’s at stake here, and why should any of this matter? In the epilogue, Bayard says:
Such an evolution means that we have to get rid of a lot of taboos that we don’t even know we have. We were taught in school to think of books as things that can’t be touched, so when we think about changing them, we feel bad. The taboos must be broken so that you can start to truly listen to the infinitely moving object that is a text. When the text is part of a conversation or a written exchange, its mobility is boosted because it is animated by the subjectivity of each reader and his or her dialogue with others. To truly listen to the text, you need to be sensitive to all the possibilities that the book takes on in these situations.
He links it to the fact that our formal education system isn’t working well:
Our educational system is clearly not doing a good job of deconsecration, and as a result, our students can’t claim the right to write books. Too many students lose their ability to think outside the box because of how important texts are and the rules against changing them. They have to learn them by heart or memorize what they “contain,” which makes them lose their ability to think outside the box. They would be able to come out of many difficult situations unharmed, and even with some benefit, if they learned that a book is remade each time it is read instead.
All education should try to help people learn how to be free enough to write and paint their own works of art. Finally, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read isn’t a book that gives you permission to dismiss books. Instead, it’s an ode to our love of books, which we use to make sense of the world.