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Book Review: How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read.


Can we really talk about books we haven't read as the title of the book reviewed here suggests? The author, french literature academic Pierre Bayard argues that it is perfectly feasible as books are not so much about narrative and characters as ideas. Does Bayard's argument hold up? Poet Ian R. Thorpe reviews How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read (without having read it of course)

Book Review - How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard
reviewed by Ian R. Thorpe
2007-10-31
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: books, literature, author, culture, humour, humor

Buy How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read from Amazon
by Pierre Bayard,
English Translation published by Bloomsbury USA

The American mindset tends to take things more literally that that of most Europeans, especially British and French minds, both of which are equally existential and fascinated with wordplay and irony, thus the idea of talking about books we have not read may seem, to an American commentator, nonsensical. Before reviewing How To Talk About Books We Have Not Read by Pierre Bayard, a French Literary Academic, I must first explain the wholly British concept of talking bollocks (it is only British in that the French have their own name for it.) to help readers understand the concept.

Bollocks is not a word that has currency in the U.S.A. It means literally "small balls" and in modern usage refers to components of the male anatomy. It is not however a "bad word". Although religious types may deem any reference to parts of the human body between the navel and upper thigh socially unacceptable, the first recorded use of the word bollocks is ecclesiastical. One of King Henry I's spies, sent to Canterbury to get the dirt on Thomas a Becket noted in a report to the king, "The Dean and Chapter walked past chanting plainsong and playing with their bollocks." Without doubt he was referring to rosary beads.

Bollocks is usually used to describe something that fails to meet expectations, as in "That novel was a load of bollocks," or "I don't listen to politicians, they all talk bollocks. A meal that is bollocks is on the inedible side of mediocre. On the other hand, something that is "the dogs bollocks" is surpassing good.

As well as "talking bollocks" referring to someone who talks through their bum-hole, it also describes an artform. Talking about books in an intellectual way is an aspect of this art, in fact I have a degree in talking bollocks about books, a.k.a English Literature.

This then was how I came to feel confident in dissing psychologist Ian Kerner's sexual self help books without having read them.

We have all told porkies* about reading, claiming to have read books we have not so much as opened. Usually we do this to impress somebody. I wonder how many red blooded men (and maybe a few women) in New York have claimed to have read Oscar Wilde or the French Romantic poets to impress a certain stunning brunette who worked as a bookseller? (Hi MM, I wonder if you and I are the only people who will read this thread who know Rimbaud was not a Sly Stallone movie?)

Pierre Bayard acknowledges that his interest in Talking About Books He Has Not Read is professional, as an academic and teacher in a University he is often required to comment on books he has not read. There are far too many books extant in any major language for one person to have read them all. This led Bayard to understand there is a difference between simple absence of reading and the act of not reading as a cultural activity.

The distinction the author makes is more noticeable in France perhaps, where intellectualism is still prized, than in the English speaking world where dumbing down and rampant capitalism have conspired to turn intellectuals into distrusted outsiders to our materialistic, home-owning democratic societies.

"Not Reading" as opposed to simply not reading is more than just laziness or lack of interest in reading, it implies an interest in literature. The true reader, the book claims, is one who loves to reflect on literature and to hold an opinion on the ideas that are the essence of any book. In this he is thinking along the same lines as Oscar Wilde who believed the critic relies neither on author or text. Wilde was saying that a reader must be creative, must interpret the text and therefore be as much a part of the creative process as the writer. To read it is necessary to interpret and to interpret is to write. Wilde would certainly not have felt his not having read a book constrained his right to express an opinion.

The central theme of Talking about Books We Have Not Read stems from the philosophical works of Jaques Derrida. The text focuses on objects and the systems that support them. Here books are these systems, only important in society in that they are the vehicles for ideas; their real importance to society lies in the conversations they generate and the exchange of ideas that take place in those conversations.

"Relations between ideas are much more important than the ideas themselves," Bayard asserts.

To put this in perspective we need to reflect on how subjective our interpretations of the events in daily life are and compare that with the subjectivity of our interpretations of the books we read.

In illustrating his point, the author repeatedly misrepresents vital plot elements in books by Umberto Eco, John Updike, Graham Greene and others. If challenged, he informs us, he will simply say that he was telling a subjective truth.

In that joke Bayard sums up the tone of his work, it is playful and tongue in cheek, as if he has played a deliciously naughty trick on more serious minded intellectuals.

Culture, he tells us, is 'a theatre charged with concealing individual ignorance'.

He could be right, but what price would we pay for tearing down that theatre. Are we already paying that price as we bulldoze cultural centres to make way for shopping malls and other Temples of Mammon.

How To Talk About Books You Have Not Read has a deliciously French feel to it, indeed it could probably only have been written by a French author. The tone is witty and thought provoking but underlying all the intellectual trickery is a serious point,

"We must transform our relationship with books and with ideas."

Often however, when he uses the word "book" it could easily be substituted by "experience" and to prove he is not a charlatan he offers insightful analysis of writers such as Proust, Balzac and Shakespeare as well as a critique of Grounhog Day.

Though prone to complicate the obvious he should never be taken at face value, Pierre Bayard is truly multi layered. But of course that is my subjective interpretation of the book. You must judge for yourselves. How To Talk About Books We Haven't Read is well worth a read.

True to the spirit of Pierre Bayard's book Ian Thorpe reviewed it without having has so much as a butcher's* in the book store.

Rhyming Slang definitions:
butcher's: contraction of butcher's hook = look
porkies: abbreviation of pork pies = lies

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