How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Or, “Why It’s Okay to Use eNotes’ Study Guides”

Modern literatis everywhere are faced with a crippling predicament: every month of the year, publishing houses churn out one bestseller after another, each one peaking our interest more than the last. And true booklovers, or at least those who want to be considered such, are expected to read an impossible amount of these, not to mention the hundreds of important works of literature that already exist in the world. How to face this hurdle in one’s path to acceptance within that coveted literary inner circle? Why, we play pretend, of course.

Utterly sacrilegious in its title but irresistibly pragmatic in its nature, Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read has been hailed as “a survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes.” But before you pounce on and decry us in the educational realm as hypocrites, have a read on to see what Bayard has to say about the science of “non-reading”…

Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.

The key to non-reading and making it work, as psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Bayard says, is orientation. Thinking back to all of the books we’ve read, thought we’ve read, read about, or merely heard whispers of, the way we process and recall all of these works is based on how we orientate them in our memories; it’s how one knows without ever opening, say, Ulysses, its importance to the literary world. We then navigate the vast library of all of these read and unread books in terms of their significance to literature as a whole:

A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.

Bayard goes so far as to stress the importance of making these connections between books over simply reading and comprehending a single book:

Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as a railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains — that is, their crossings and transfers — rather than the contents of any specific convoy.

Now this is not to say that we encourage or condone that you not read, and especially that you not read what is assigned of you in class. But it brings up a good point. I have never read, nor do I really desire or have the time to read, War and Peace, at least not anymore than I want to read a growing list of about 50 other, newer titles that I have to catch up on (ones that aren’t 363 chapters long). But that’s not to say that I shouldn’t be able or expected to know the novel’s significance. In Bayard’s eyes, there is more shame in admitting that you don’t know what a book is about than being able to talk about a book you haven’t read for yourself:

Only in accepting our non-reading without shame can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence.

In summation, rather than giving us permission to disregard great works of literature, Bayard gives us his ode to books with How To Talk About Books, stating that this is a method we must practice to employ the fantastic way that literature helps us make sense of a confusing world.

So there you have it. You may freely use eNotes’ study guides to become a fuller person with a more fruitful inner library. For further non-reading, you may also want to flip through Flavorwire’s neat little cheat sheet to help you talk about the ten important books you probably haven’t read.

In the meantime, feel free to use this as an excuse to not read Bayard’s book. Just make sure you label it afterwards, according to the author’s tidy (anal) cataloguing system:

UB book unknown to me

SB book I have skimmed

HB book I have heard about

FB book I have forgotten