Talking About Books I Haven’t Read

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?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

12 responses to “Talking About Books I Haven’t Read

  1. I’ve been wondering about this book but I think I’m too indignant at the thought of someone talking about a book as if he’s read it. It’s sort of like lying in a way isn’t it? There are worse things than books one can fib about, but why is reading–or not reading–something one would want to lie about? Unless, of course, you are one of those grad students you mentioned.


  2. SFP

    I read McInerney’s review and, er, skimmed the first chapter of Bayard’s book, which is all I intend to do: I haven’t forgotten why I love reading (I don’t think any of us here have), so why do more?


  3. Cam

    I was in shock in an American Lit class when the professor gave us the chapters to ‘skip’ in Moby-Dick (yes, the boring whaling ones). Although I had skipped pieces of assigned works when I was up against a deadline (I really wasn’t the kind of student who excelled at time management & my scholarly efforts showed it), I couldn’t believe that we would be allowed to do so. Perversely, I read many of those unassigned chapters. In retrospect, I don’t think that it made much difference to the discussion of the work as it existed in that class. But, we could have spent as much time discussing why Melville decided to include them. It all depends on what one’s purpose is.

    Last year I counted the books I had read and those I had abandoned. I was a bit conflicted over my classification scheme: there were some books that I considered ‘read’ even though I may have skipped parts. I guess it depended on what kind of work it was (I think non-fiction tending more to be considered ‘read’ even if not completed), but also how much I liked the work. An abandoned book is clearly one that I decided would be a waste of my time to complete, but those unfinished, but not ‘abandoned’, seem to have a more ambiguous criteria for classification.

    But, regardless, it was still reading. A partial read is completely different than what Bayard seems to be writing about.


  4. jettsam

    Hmmm. I am curious about the reading and forgetting bit. I do that all the time but why? If you read a book and are engaged cover to cover why do the details flit away on some books but not others? Did I read them differently? How do you “read” a book so that it doesn’t happen? Kind of a stupid question as I guess it is like anything else that requires a chunk of memory.


  5. I’ve been tempted to skip in books at times but it always ruins the experience for me. I keep worrying whether I’ve missed the little detail that would be the moment I’ll always retain, or the key to the book’s deeper meaning. If I’m not getting on with something, I think I’d rather give it up. That’s just me, though.


  6. I made a blog about this the other day. And honestly i kinda do this stuff. I do read, of course…but there are some instances when i’m conversing with other people about a certain book I haven’t actually read but I do know and It just surprise me how much I know about it even thought I haven’t read the book.


  7. I can’t skim. Maybe if it was a nonfiction title where I don’t intend to read it all anyway, but am just looking for bits of information. As for talking about books I’ve never read–I already have trouble conveying what I feel about what I HAVE read at times, so I am not about to try it on something I haven’t even picked up. As for reading and forgetting…there are books I read in high school–like the Iliad and the Odyssey, that I read and have so completely forgotten that I don’t consider now that I’ve read them. At least I couldn’t talk about them. I guess that is what rereading is for. Interesting question–it sort of fits in with what I’ve been thinking about lately.


  8. I picked up Cranford yesterday, which I’d read when I was at school. I vaguely remember it but it is like reading a book for the first time. I was wondering whether this was a re-read or a new read – an interesting question and I couldn’t decide. If you’d asked me before yesterday I’d have said I’d read it.

    I don ‘t like skim reading as I think I might miss something important. And as for saying I’d read something when I hadn’t – I think that’s just stupid.


  9. Stefanie — it IS lying, I agree, and I don’t see the point of lying about what you’ve read — yes, it could impress people, but who wants to impress people with false information??

    Susan — Bayard really is asking for people to skim his book, isn’t he? Perhaps it’s only what he deserves — or perhaps he wouldn’t mind. I wonder if he WOULD mind?

    Cam — wow, I’d be in shock if a professor told me that too! That’s disillusioning, isn’t it? And, yeah, I have trouble classifying books sometimes too — what about anthologies of stories or poems that you read only some of? Is that book read or unread?

    Jettsam — oh, I wish I knew, and I wish I were better at remembering … it’s no fun to forget books you’ve enjoyed.

    Litlove — I don’t like to skip either. I suppose in a book where I’ve read enough to discover that parts really are skippable, I might skim those, but I feel the same way — what you’ve missed might be something critical!

    Webster — I think we do pick up a lot of information about books from various sources — blogs, reviews, NPR, friends, so it’s not hard sometimes to fake it. I think that’s what Bayard’s getting at with the “inner book” idea — that we glean information from a lot of places that we use to judge a book even before we’ve read it. It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it?

    Danielle — good point, and I feel that way too about struggling enough to describe what I HAVE read without working to talk about what I haven’t. I’d be too scared I’d get something wrong to try to pull it off, even if I were interested in lying about it in the first place, which I’m not. I feel the way you describe about the Iliad and Odyssey about some of my own books — War and Peace, for example, which I read in High School, I think. Nothing has stayed with me!

    BooksPlease — it’s both kind of scary and fun to re-read something you’ve mostly forgotten, isn’t it? Scary to think of all we can forget, and fun to begin to remember things and to bring back the old experience. I hope you enjoy Cranford; I’ve been meaning to read that one for a while.


  10. Very amusing title for a book. I suppose most people talk about books they haven’t read by lots of arrogant blustering. 🙂

    Dorothy – “…who wants to impress people with false information?” You are too positive. My pessimistic nature drives me to say, “I see this all too often.” I think you probably can’t conceive of this because it is far from your nature. I hope your view of the world is more accurate than mine.

    Jettsam – memory is an interesting creature. Typically our brain can store and recall information more efficiently depending on how many relationships we build between new information and previously stored information. If we read a book quickly and don’t spend much time considering how specific details relate to other information we have experienced, then it is likely the new items will flit away.

    Some researchers have theorized that dreams are a manifestation of our brain testing connections between information in its constant quest to minimize retrieval time and storage space. When you walk down the hall in your workplace and open a door to your childhood classroom, it may just be a failed (or successful) attempt to consolidate. Someone who had a lot of open sea experience might be able to recall the “skippable” chapters of Moby Dick with amazing clarity.


  11. kittent

    I looked at the title, thought “this might be interesting, for some value of interesting,” read your article and the comments and realized that I am not interested in reading it enough to put it on my list (a big step forward!!!! yay, me).

    I’m putting my books in LibraryThing and, like Cam, it is making me think about what I have read and what I have abandoned and why these books deserve to be in my library at all.

    You all might be interested in a site called What Should I Read Next? which lets you enter a title and get recommendations based on other people’s choices. Personally, I cringed.


  12. Bikkuri — oh, you’re right, I’m sure. I’m generally not very optimistic, but I just don’t see the appeal in lying about what one has read, so it’s hard for me to imagine why other people do it. And your response to Jettsam is a good reason to blog about books — writing about them surely helps create those connections that will help us remember better.

    Kittent — I’m glad to help out! It’s nice to be able to cross a book off the list as one we don’t ever need to read. I will have to look that site up — I’m curious.


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