How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

I loved How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard, although I think I loved it as much for its tone and attitude as for the arguments it makes. I thought Bayard’s arguments were fascinating, if limited, but the real attraction was his way of saying things few others are willing to say (an attitude his title indicates well) and his refusal to take reading so terribly, terribly seriously. There was something very freeing about reading this book (and it’s not the fact that I now feel I can talk about books I haven’t read!).

The title is a little misleading, because even though Bayard says he is going to give advice about how to talk about books you haven’t read, he only does that occasionally. Mostly the book is a meditation on what it means to have read something and on how small and uncertain the difference is between having read something and not having read it. If you think about it, is it meaningful to say that you have read a book you don’t remember a thing about beyond its title? Isn’t it possible to know much more about a book that you have recently skimmed than one you read 20 years ago and have completely forgotten? Isn’t it possible that you could say something more insightful about a book you have read a review of and understand from an exterior, distanced point of view, than one you have read and in whose details you have lost yourself?

I’m not in the least interested in pretending to have read books I haven’t, but I realized as I read Bayard that I talk about books I haven’t read all the time: I do it in blog posts where I talk about what I want to read or why I bought particular books that are as yet unread. I recommend books I haven’t read to people I think might possibly like them (while admitting I haven’t read them), and I allude to books I haven’t read while I’m teaching class, in order to make some point about history or context. It’s this kind of book knowledge Bayard is interested in; he talks a lot about cultural literacy, which to him means knowledge of the ways books fit together, their relationships with one another and with their contexts. I can tell you something about a Trollope novel I haven’t read because I know a little about Trollope and a fair amount about the Victorian novel. I understand the context from which his novels come, and, for that matter, I know a lot about novels. If this is the kind of knowledge about books that matters, then actually having read the Trollope novel is kind of a minor detail.

I don’t buy that argument fully — it leaves little room for the actual content of books to surprise you after all — but it does seem true that just by surrounding yourself with bookish people and culture, you can absorb a whole lot of knowledge about books you will never pick up. A bigger problem with Bayard’s argument is that he nowhere acknowledges that reading books might actually be fun. I don’t read solely for the purpose of gaining the kind of cultural literacy he describes (especially now that I’m out of grad school); I read because I want the experience of being absorbed in a book.

But these disagreements aren’t what matter to me. What really matters is the fun of exploring the complexities of reading. Bayard deconstructs the reading/nonreading distinction, but he also undermines the very notion of a book, or rather, he makes up a whole bunch of “books” in addition to the actual book you hold in your hand. Because as soon as you have finished reading a book, you immediately construct your own version of it, a “book” that is only a little bit like what you have read. Every reader brings to books a certain history, capacity, and set of interests that shape how they make sense of them, which means the books they read are a little (or a lot) different than other people’s readings of the exact same books. So when we talk about books, we are really talking about entirely different things: I’m talking about my book and you are talking about yours, no matter whether the words we read are the same or not.

So, given that logic, why not talk about books you haven’t read? One excellent point Bayard makes is that readers should lose the shame they feel about unread books. In fact, any reader’s relationship with books is primarily one of not having read them, since we can only read a very small percentage of all the books out there. Not only that, but our relationship with books we have read is one of loss: once we stop reading, our “inner” book becomes a separate thing from the book itself, and we immediately start the process of forgetting. The small percentage of what we remember, out of the tiny percentage of what we have actually read, leaves us with not a whole lot.

These arguments don’t strike me as all that original; if you’ve studied philosophy or literary theory or just thought deeply about reading they won’t be particularly surprising. But Bayard does a great job of making the ideas fun. The book makes an interesting pairing with Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction; they seem like very different books in many ways, one urging us to read for pleasure and the other not even acknowledging that pleasure in reading exists. But both urge a certain freedom in our reading, whether it’s the freedom to read at whim, or freedom from the shame we feel at not having read things. Reading is a serious endeavor, yes, but we could all stand to lighten up a bit.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

18 responses to “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this one for some time now. But maybe I don’t need to, after having read your post. Maybe all I need to do is talk about it now :-)!


  2. Eva

    As soon as I started reading your post, I thought of the Jacobs book! This one sounds like really fun; from the title, I imagined it was gimicky, but now I’m putting it on my wishlist. Yay! 🙂


  3. From the title, I was really turned off to this book, but you make it sound so interesting. I’m really intrigued by that whole question of whether you can more about a book you’ve read 20 years ago and mostly forgotten versus a book you’ve read a detailed review of yesterday. As an example, I could say a lot more of value about The Help, which I haven’t read but have read a lot about, than I could about, say, Miss Lonelyhearts, which I studied in college and remember only the title of (and I had to look that up).

    And I’ve often had the experience of discussing a book with someone and feeling like we’ve read completely different books.


  4. How To Talk About Books … is now on my iPad, really looking forward to reading it!
    When reading your last paragraph a certain concept suddenly popped up in my head: cost-effectiveness.
    As I see it, we have to work really hard to get rid of all these kind of result oriented concepts that contaminate the joy of doing things which cant be measured in money or concrete results. Its an illness of our age, not to be able to listen for deeper meanings.


  5. Emily’s comment made me laugh! We have this – I bought a copy for Mister Litlove, who sometimes makes the hideous error of repeating to me things about books that I have told him as if he’d read them/thought of them himself…. I think he quite enjoyed it, but it was long enough ago that, as Bayard rightly suggests, I have forgotten the details! I do think the idea of lightening up is a good one, though. It’s so easy to get bogged down with reading and making it into a rod for our own backs (or a contest of taste) rather than the delightful pleasure it basically is.


  6. This sounds like such a fun book. It reminds me of what someone wrote about Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time: it is the most carried around but never read book. The writer went on to say that everyone who carried it wanted to appear intelligent, but that it was too obscure for many people to enjoy…I guess that’s why I haven’t read it either! 🙂


  7. This has always intrigued me, and I’m glad this book includes this in the discussion… for the books that we’ve read before (maybe long time ago) but have totally forgotten what the content is about, can we still say we’ve read them? And with such blurry lines of definition nowadays, I’m sure this book has its justification to be written. Especially considering our mash and morph, postmodern age, I’m afraid those who’ve read Pride & Prejudice & Zombies would consider themselves having read Jane Austen’s classic work as well… you’ll never know.


  8. Nan

    For me, reading has been and will always be for FUN. I read what I want, when I want. I drop what I don’t like. I feel like everything I’ve read has become a part of me, has nourished me, just as much as food.


  9. I like your/Bayard’s point that we talk about books we haven’t read all the time – not in a pretending-we-have-read-them way, but in a way where we want to read them, plan to read them, don’t ever plan to read them, have heard others talking about them, are disgusted by the hype around them, learned about their influence in school, etc. It even sort of makes sense that he doesn’t address the actual pleasure of reading, if his main subject is the sorts of cultural conversations that take place AROUND reading rather than the reading itself. (That said, such a focus would ultimately get pretty joyless, I think, taken on its own.) I’m intrigued by this, Rebecca – thanks for the post.


  10. I’m not conversant with philosophy (though my h is) so for me these are new ideas and quirky ones at that–but with a logical consistency.


  11. Yours is the best review of this book that I’ve read – there was a lot about it in the UK press but mostly the articles played up the ‘how to pretend’ aspect. I didn’t want to read it, but I do now.


  12. I started reading this not long after it came out and was turned off by Bayard’s voice but you are making me re-think it now! When my husband worked for Barnes & Noble he’d talk about books he hadn’t read all the time and even make recommendations to customers. He was quite good at it and even developed a little customer following who would always look for him and ask for recommendations. It never ceased to amaze and amuse me.


  13. I think I was also turned off by the title of the book but it actually sounds very good for other reasons. I think I talk a lot about books I’ve not read (though I always admit to not having read something) because like you say I have absorbed so much about them through reading about them or talking to people about them and knowing how they fit into things. It’s all really very interesting because it is part of the literary cultural makeup we all carry around as readers. And I wonder sometimes whether I can count having read something that I read years ago and can’t even really remember anymore. It’s sad and a little scary how quickly I forget books.


  14. I haven’t thought about it, but yes of course big readers are always talking about the books they haven’t read. It’s maybe one of our favorite types of book conversation – sorting through what we haven’t read to decide what to read. I saw this book and was turned off for a variety of reasons, but may need to add it to my list.


  15. As others have said here, I’d not been too keen on this, but I think my impressions may have been off-base: I’m definitely in search of this one for a good re-think. Or possibly a fresh-think, as I can’t even remember why it was that I decided I wan’t keen on this in the first place. 😉 Thanks!


  16. Sounds fascinating. I already had it on my tbr list but definitely one to read sooner rather than later, since I’m always talking on the blog about books I haven’t read either. good points your bring up here.


  17. Emily B. — it’s hard not to make jokes about not actually having read this one! I think you would like it — and it’s a very short read.

    Eva — the title is definitely risky; it’s attention-getting, but it also gives the wrong impression. The book is light-hearted in many ways, but it has a serious argument to make. I hope you like it!

    Teresa — I find the subject fascinating too, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the whole concept of having read something is much vaguer and more complicated than we usually think of it being. I like the way Bayard is trying to expand our vocabulary to acknowledge that the books we talk about are different than the books themselves. Although I don’t imagine people will start talking about their “inner books” much.

    Sigrun — interesting point! I know I focus too much on numbers when it comes to read — how many books have I read this year, how many pages have I read today, etc. I wish I were better at reading just for the joy of it!

    Litlove — how funny that Mister Litlove repeats your own brilliant points back to you! This really is the perfect book for him, and I’m glad he enjoyed it 🙂 I so agree with you about lightening up. We all have enough stressors in our lives that we don’t need to get worked up about our leisure activities.

    Debby — hmmm … I haven’t read that book either, although I have probably talked about it! I’m not surprised at all that people consider it the most-owned, never-read book. If you add in the people who tried but gave up, the numbers are probably huge! Some books are better read about than read themselves, I think.

    Arti — now that would be bad, to have read the zombies version and think you have read Austen! But the issue is also there for older works where the nature of the text is up for debate (different versions, editions, etc.). It’s not a simple thing at all. And yet we talk about reading as though it is black and white — you’ve done it or you haven’t.

    Nan — that’s good! For me, reading gets mixed up with work, since I teach literature. But I want to keep a nice large category of my reading purely for pleasure.

    Emily — yes, to focus just on one’s ability to talk about books misses a large point and doesn’t seem that much fun to me, but then I’m not much of an argue/debater and don’t like the idea of faking knowledge I don’t have. If I were someone who liked showing off at parties, I might find his omission of the pleasures of reading less significant!

    Lilian — quirky, yes, but so convincing! I love it when people can say things that sound outrageous and then convincingly defend them 🙂

    Victoria — thank you! I can understand why people played up the pretending to have read thing, but the book is really about so much more. I hope you like it.

    Stefanie — how fun! I’ll bet librarians as well as bookstore people are experts at talking about books they haven’t read — it’s part of the job! To be able to make recommendations about a wide range of books surely requires drawing on knowledge other than actually reading everything. I’d say it’s quite an impressive skill.

    Danielle — I’m awful about forgetting books too, and I don’t like it. A blog helps, but sometimes I read old blog posts and think, what?? I don’t remember that! Your comment describes Bayard’s notion of cultural literacy very well; we are surrounded by books and book talk, so of course we pick up tons of knowledge about them whether we actually read them or not.

    Michelle — good point — talking about books we plan to read but haven’t yet IS a great kind of book talk. When we decide to read something or not to, it’s often based on quite a lot of knowledge gained from other people or from reviews — so why not talk about it!

    Buried in print — that’s great! Based on the comments here, I’m beginning to think the title of this book was a mistake, since it seems to have turned off a lot of people. It’s not quite what it seems based on the title!

    Rebecca — I hope you like it! I think it’s a great book for anybody who thinks about the act of reading a lot.


  18. Pingback: How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read | James Russell Ament

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