There are literally hundreds of thousands of books published each year. Some people rely upon the recommendations of others, for example the New York Times Best Seller List, to narrow their selection and thus save themselves time and effort. However, these lists are arbitrary and subjective. Many fine books are missed if the list uses a rubric such as total books sold on a specific day or those published by a certain publisher. It is physically impossible to read even a quarter of those books. What happens when you are asked about a book in a social setting? Do you bluff your way through it? or can you use the skills discussed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard.
This book is an interesting treatment of a topic seldom discussed: the art of not reading. Yeah, that’s right. It’s a book about NOT reading. This is a serious topic. In the author’s view, not reading is as important as reading. At one point in the book, Bayard argues that it is occasionally better to have not read the book under discussion. This has happened to me and I agree; it has been a useful tool to draw out reluctant participants at a book club when I allow my uncertainty about plot to lead the discussion. When I do not have an opinion about a book’s action and meaning, I am able to delve into the topic with child-like wonder.
NOT Reading is something that a cultivated person must do in order to maintain a sense of self and social equity. “Cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book … it is ultimately unnecessary to have handled a book to have a sense of it and to express your thoughts on the subject.” (32) Bayard reduces the whole lexicon of reading and literary achievement to self-involved congratulation. He proposes that “Talking about a book is less about the book itself than about the moment of conversation devoted to it.” (162) Bayard argues that it’s actually more important to know about a book’s role in our collective library than its details.
Ultimately, Bayard’s book is a homage to great literature. The summaries of some well known and esoteric stories invited me to look them up and … gasp, read them. Is this book a satire? I’m not sure. Maybe something was lost in translation. (It was a bestseller in France.) Although persuasive, I reserve my right to be unconvinced by Bayard’s argument. Go out and read!