From its polemical title, Pierre Bayard’s “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” promises to be a face-saving manual for those of us too lazy to read the classics. Each chapter muses upon different social situations (such as encounters with professors) where one has to talk about books that one has not read.
Unlike most academics, Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII, is refreshingly frank about not having read the classics cover to cover. Through a code of abbreviations in which “UB” stands for “book unknown to me” and “SB” for “book I have skimmed,” Bayard marks his relation to all the texts he cites.
Marking “Hamlet” as “SB and HB++” (a book he has skimmed, heard about and regards very positively), Bayard’s insolent schoolboy attitude toward reading presents him as an antagonist to the establishment of canonical text worship. However, his lighthearted approach to the classics comes as a relief to readers weary of encomia.
While most professors may seem determined to ruthlessly expose the ignorance of nonreaders, Bayard encourages his students to elaborate upon books they have not read, and he writes, “(They) bring to the encounter an originality that they would undoubtedly have lacked had they undertaken to read the book.”
Transposed into real life, this philosophy may prove charming at dinner parties but will score you a fail on a reading quiz.
Bayard views books as mere “pretext(s)” to self-expression. He crucially points out that, in striving to seem cultivated through the myth of thorough reading, we sacrifice our own self-discovery.
Bayard’s observation that the self can be lost in the desire to seem cultivated inspires us to change our motivations as readers. However, he fails to acknowledge that reading can open our minds by exposing us to the opinions of others. If we single-mindedly pursue ourselves in the text, we lose the ability to be enlightened by others.
At times witty and conversational, Jeffrey Mehlman’s translation of Bayard from the original French assumes an intelligent, dare we say it, well-read reader. Even though Bayard discourages reading the classics, some knowledge is required to appreciate the subtleties of the text. In other situations, Bayard’s profuse philosophizing targets an expert audience and one can easily imagine the book as an in-joke among academics well-versed in the history of French thought.
Readers who approach “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” with the hope of finding intelligent conversation pieces about Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” will feel that they have been lured by false merchandising.
Others, however, will find themselves relieved of the obligation to ever read “Crime and Punishment” and feel inspired to pursue their own course through literature, rendering Bayard’s book at least worthy of discussion if not reading.