That’s exactly what I’m going to do in this post, as I haven’t read Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read and probably won’t ever. But I did read Jay McInerney’s review of the book from the NYTimes and was intrigued by some of the points it made. While I’m no fan of pretending to have read something one hasn’t (those students in grad school who would dominate the conversation even though they hadn’t done the reading drove me nuts), Bayard makes the larger point that reading is such a complex act that there are many ways of doing it and many ways to relate to a book (see how easily I slip into making pronouncements about Bayard’s book as though I’ve actually read it? Bayard would approve).
There’s skimming, skipping sections, reading about a book, and reading a book and then forgetting about it. McInerney adds the example of the book reviewer who implies that she has read an author’s entire output, when she really has not. And I wonder, while some of these are clearly not reading — reading about a book or implying one has read books when one hasn’t — what about the others? How do you classify skimming or reading everything but the boring parts? War and Peace without the war? Moby Dick without the whaling parts? What about reading and then forgetting? This one interests me most, as it’s the one on this list I do most often (alas). Who has a better grasp of a book, the one who skims or skips and remembers, or the one who has read and completely forgotten? If I’ve completely forgotten a book, should I say I’ve read it? Am I really re-reading if I pick it up again?
Here’s what Bayard says about skimming:
The fertility of this mode of discovery markedly unsettles the difference between reading and nonreading, or even the idea of reading at all. … It appears that most often, at least for the books that are central to our particular culture, our behavior inhabits some intermediate territory, to the point that it becomes difficult to judge whether we have read them or not.
Yes, that makes perfect sense; I love the idea of the intermediate territory between reading and nonreading. Reading is not by any means a clear-cut act. Scanning the words of a book with one’s eyes to comprehend their meaning is both a reductive definition and a complicated one — mere scanning of words doesn’t seem like enough, but what does it mean to comprehend their meaning?
Bayard also writes about the notion of an “inner book”:
The set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.
Not only is the act of seeing and comprehending words a complicated one, but we also bring a whole host of preconceptions and assumptions to reading that shape our experience of it. We can never escape this background, can never (or rarely) approach a book completely innocently, with no expectations.
While I don’t like the Bayard’s idea that talking about books you haven’t read is a creative act (that puts too much positive spin on it), I am intrigued by his analysis of what it means to read. McInerney ends his review this way:
I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.
Perhaps I should read this book after all?