There has been a lot of buzz about Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Many are outraged and the title certainly is designed to provoke. I am just curious; I wonder all the time about best sellers like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time — are people really reading these books or just buying them, reading the first chapter or so, and then talking about them as if they read them? What about talking about books only from their reviews? I don’t know about you, but I admit doing so and hear and see people doing it all the time, say on various online discussion groups.
Between a book we’ve read closely and a book we’ve never even heard of, there is a whole range of gradations that deserve our attention. In the case of books we have supposedly read, we must consider just what is meant by reading, a term that can refer to a variety of practices. Conversely, many books that by all appearances we haven’t read exert an influence on us nevertheless, as their reputations spread through society. Reading is not a simple, seamless process; it has fault lines, deficiencies and approximations.
Non-reading goes far beyond the act of leaving a book unopened. To varying degrees, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about and books we have forgotten also fall into the rich category that is non-reading. Life, in its cruelty, presents us with a plethora of situations in which we might find ourselves talking about books we haven’t read.
To get to the heart of things, I believe we must significantly modify how we talk about books, even the specific words we use to describe them. Our relation to books is not the continuous and homogeneous process that certain critics would have us imagine, nor the site of some transparent self-knowledge. Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these spectres.
Rather than growling about him, I think we should be thinking and talking about this. I hope to get a chance to read his book one of these days instead of just talking/writing about it without having done so; frankly, I think he may be on to something.