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April 02, 2008

HB, then SB, then FB; ++: How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read - Pierre Bayard

Posted by David Womersley

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
by Pierre Bayard
Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
London: Granta Books, 2007
Hardback, £12

In J. K. Huysman's À Rebours, the central character, the effete and decadent aristocrat Des Esseintes, decides to make a trip to London. Before his journey he settles down for a meal in a tavern on the Rue d'Amsterdam. In quest of sympathy with his destination, he selects dishes evocative of England: oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef and potatoes, Stilton, rhubarb tart. He shuns wine in favour of beer and porter. As he eats and drinks, he revolves in his mind the likely experiences which lie in wait for him on the other side of the Channel.

Gradually, the desire to travel evaporates. After such a thorough imaginative experience, the actuality of London could only be banal and coarse:

Wasn't he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food, and even cutlery, were all around him? What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments . . .
Des Esseintes pays for his meal and returns to his home just outside Paris, fortified by a reflection about the superiority of the imagined to the actual:
When you come to think of it, I've seen and felt all that I wanted to see and feel. I've been steeped in English life ever since I left home, and it would be madness to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locality.
At first glance How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read seems to be an essay in that Huysman-esque, hyper-ripe mode of paradoxical decadence. It is no accident that one of Bayard's intellectual heroes is the Wilde of "The Critic as Artist". (His other chief heroes - Montaigne and Proust - are also carefully-chosen, and resonate with important themes in his treatment of the prolific forms of non-reading.) But that appearance is deceptive. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is also deep and, in a way which becomes clear only gently and gradually, even moral and humane.

The essence of Bayard's argument is that the crude binary opposition we unreflectively employ every day, dividing books into those we have read and those we have not read, operates to disguise from us (p. xvi):

the uncertainty of the border between reading and not reading.
For, as he points out, (p. xvii):
books we've skimmed, books we've heard about, and books we have forgotten also fall into the rich category that is non-reading.
The first section of the book anatomises the principal kinds of non-reading. The second section analyses a range of (p. xvii)
concrete situations in which we might find ourselves talking about books we haven't read.
The third and final section is perhaps the most interesting, and it is here that How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read shifts key. Bayard is a professor of French literature at Paris VIII - so there is a pleasing self-deprecation, as well perhaps as a flavour of the opening cadences of À la recherché du temps perdu, in the first words of the book:
Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it, . . .
But he is also a psychoanalyst, and he concludes How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read with a series of acute and humane reflections on the psychological balm of talking about unread books. To be freed from the guilt of not having read (p. 182):
recalls what may reasonably be expected from psychoanalysis, the primary function of which is to free the patient from his inner constraints and, by the end of a journey over which he remains the sole master, to open him up to all his creative possibilities.
The practice of talking about books we have not read turns us, if we approach it correctly, into creators (p. 183):
Becoming the creators of our own works is thus the logical and desirable extension of an apprenticeship in commenting on books we haven't read. This creativity is one step along the path to self-conquest and to our liberation from the burden of culture, . . .
Of course, not all of this is utterly new. There is in English a rich tradition of commentary on the various, more and less perfunctory, forms of reading and non-reading, extending from Bacon's famous maxim, that
some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested,
to Johnson's incredulous challenge:
Sir, do you read books through?
But, although How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read presents itself initially as a slacker's charter ("How I Learned to Stop Reading and Stop Worrying"), Bayard's great insight is that all reading falls short, and that we have a neurotic compulsion to deny this noonday truth. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is in fact a paradoxical encomium on the pleasures and therapies of the literary life.

Bayard writes with elegance, lucidity and precision (although he has been mildly let down by this translation, which is sometimes clumsy and ungrammatical as well as unidiomatic, and which has a tendency passively to follow the sequences of a French sentence rather than translating its structure, as well as its words, into English).

In that Gallic spirit of brilliant concision, Bayard has developed a notation which captures and systematises some of the nuances of incompleteness in the way we read. HB stands for a book you have heard of, SB for a book you have skimmed, FB for a book you have skimmed but forgotten, UB for a book unknown to you. Shades of evaluation ranging from strong approval to strong disapproval are registered by ++, +, -, --. This is a system which is of course also well-adapted to the needs of reviewers. In the case of Bayard's playful and profound book, I might simply have written: HB, then SB, then FB; ++.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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