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Talking about books you haven't read - Pierre Bayard

A good heuristic, in my opinion, to differentiate a bluffer from a real reader when having a conversation with someone about a book is to presume that they haven’t read it and establish a minute-or-so long conversation on a random topic from that book. If they engage honestly, give them the benefit of doubt; if not, you know what to do — change the topic (remember to do it subtly) and stop it from getting awkward.

The idea with the approach here is to distinguish the person with a genuine opinion from someone interested only in contributing to the verbal diarrhea irrespective of the topic or the situation — A real-life troll.

And before I go any further I must also clarify that this is not to disparage the other person, instead, this is to know if at all to engage with someone in a matter that can potentially spiral down into a conflict, and ensure that if at all it does it is not due to the obvious issue of not knowing what one is talking about. Of course, there can be misunderstandings and false negatives, meaning, people who you think are bluffing might really have read the material and in reality, it might just have been a matter of interpretation, which I feel is a pity since such conversations can easily be navigated down a neutral path once you realize the mistake in your judgment or the similarity in the interpretation—and FWIW it happens quite a lot in areas such as Philosophy, Politics, and Theology—but the solace is in the fact that regardless of it being a product of judgment or interpretation this technique allows you to avoid getting into situations that are hard to come out of. A small price to pay for preserving your sanity!

However, one must also remember that with upside also comes downside, and in this case the downside is that of a false positive, a situation where you misjudge someone to have had read the material in question and fall in the trap that Pierre lays out quite elaborately in his extremely persuasive book titled “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”. Pierre is a master tactician and you can see it clearly in his romanticization of the opposites to devalue reading as a virtuous activity:

“Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the counter gesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.”

The thing that irks me the most about this line of reasoning is that it is extremely dishonest. If you really wished to, you could say the same about anything, and I mean literally anything. Take for example the case of playing an instrument, or for that matter playing a sport, or writing an article. Is playing an instrument, first and foremost an activity of non-playing every other instrument? Or is writing an article the same as not writing every other article that were (or will be) ever written?

This is a classic trope by some Logical Positivists who only focus on the logical coherence of their statement as opposed to understanding the real value of what things actually mean. This is not to say that Pierre is a logical positivist, but that I have seen this behaviour a lot among that group. Take for example this sentence:

“Why is there anything instead of nothing?”

Now tell me how should one go about even thinking of answering such a question?

And if you are pondering the answer to this question, quit now. There is none, for this is basically a meaningless statement posed with literally no context about what “nothing” means. Does nothing mean empty space? Does it mean a bottomless pit? What does it mean?

If it means any of the above, then clearly you have a reference for what nothing means, in which case you are either asking an existential question which is again quite meaningless, or looking for the origin of things which is what science is for; and if it doesn’t, then there isn’t much to say here, is there?

Same goes for reading. What does it even mean to not read all the books in the entire universe? Isn’t it just a dishonest manipulation of an obvious effect of doing just about any activity? The clever trick here is to leave you, the reader, in awe of the vastness that is unimaginably large. But remember that it is exactly just that, a clever trick, for vastness is an innate attribute of everything you deal with in life. Does it mean that you should stop doing anything and everything? Does it mean that you should drop all your values and lead an unscrupulous life?

This is a question of ethics and if you think about it, it is completely unethical to impose your assumed profundity on others in the name of universalism. He even goes on to give examples from Robert Musil’s famous Novel “The man without qualities” to prove his point and provide an additional trick or a two.

…If The Man Without Qualities brings up the problem of how cultural literacy intersects with the infinite, it also presents a possible solution, one adopted by the librarian helping General Stumm. This librarian has found a way to orient himself among the millions of volumes in his library, if not among all the books in the world. His technique is extraordinary in its simplicity: "When I didn't let go of him he suddenly pulled himself up, rearing up in those wobbly pants of his, and said in a slow, very emphatic way, as though the time had come to give away the ultimate secret: 'General,' he said, 'if you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.'" The general is astonished by this unusual librarian, who vigilantly avoids reading not for any want of culture, but, on the contrary, in order to better know his books: "It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was, he explained himself. 'The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,' he explained. 'He's bound to lose perspective.'

'So,' I said, trying to catch my breath, 'you never read a single book?'

'Never. Only the catalogs.'

'But aren't you a Ph.D.?'

'Certainly I am. I teach at the university, as a special lecturer in Library Science. Library Science is a special field leading to a degree, you know," he explained. "How many systems do you suppose there are, General, for the arrangement and preservation of books, cataloging of titles, correcting misprints and misinformation on title pages, and the like?'"

Musil's librarian thus keeps himself from entering into the books under his care, but he is far from indifferent or hostile toward them, as one might suppose. On the contrary, it is his love of books—of all books—that incites him to remain prudently on their periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.

To me, the wisdom of Musil's librarian lies in this idea of maintaining perspective…

Really? skim through table of contents to maintain perspective?

Of what value is that perspective, if it comes with the risk of doing injustice to the author. What about the months and years of effort put by the author towards researching and carefully crafting the narrative? What if the table of contents is not strictly representative of this effort or the real content?

This has been one of the biggest problems of modernity in that people, especially the clever ones, seem more interested in throwing leprechauns at one another instead of engaging honestly.

And the problem doesn’t stop here. If you read further you’ll notice that Pierre really believes that one can and should adopt this approach, and in arguing for such an approach to reading, he uses yet another classic trope of the dilemma of choicesThe paradox of choice —Barry Schwartz. His point being, why exhaust yourself with choices when you can do a cursory glance at all of them and maintain an overall perspective.

…What he says about libraries, indeed, is probably true of cultural literacy in general: he who pokes his nose into a book is abandoning true cultivation, and perhaps even reading itself. For there is necessarily a choice to be made, given the number of books in existence, between the overall view and each individual book, and all reading is a squandering of energy in the difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole.

The wisdom of this position lies first of all in the importance it accords to totality, in its suggestion that to be truly cultured, we should tend toward exhaustiveness rather than the accumulation of isolated bits of knowledge. Moreover, the search for totality changes how we look at each book, allowing us to move beyond its individuality to the relations it enjoys with others….

As much as I would like to agree with his point of view, the problem with the advice here is that of assumption and responsibility. Pierre in talking about the dilemma of choices, describes the act of reading itself as squandering one’s energy and time.

But then what is to live if not to expend time and energy on something? Shouldn’t then every activity that one chooses to pursue in their respective lives be categorized simply as waste of energy and time?

What bothers me the most in all of this is that even if I give him the benefit of doubt and absolve him of the malicious intent of manipulating people into seeing just the positive side of non-reading, I cannot stop myself from seeing how unclear and muddled this entire line of argumentation is. It feels as if he is completely obliviousAlthough Pierre does note briefly in the final chapters of the book the value of being careful when talking about the work of an author, the amount of attention paid to that just doesn't make up for all the bad advice you are made to consume throughtout the book. to the fundamental aspect of life i.e, to take responsibility for one’s own actions and choices.

I am all for the idea of forming views that are exhaustive in nature and cater to the relationship between the individual concepts, but my question is does it warrant the cost of potentially misinterpreting/misquoting the author?

Maybe, maybe not. But talking about a book should definitely come with at least some sort of skin in the game, which Pierre certainly doesn’t look like values as much as his ability to preserve the totality of views. And you see a glimpse of this right away in the last para of the first chapter when he talks about not having read Joyce’s Ullyses and how he finds himself alluding to it all the time without the slightest anxiety.

For instance, I've never "read" Joyce's Ulysses, and it's quite plausible that I never will. The "content" of the book is thus largely foreign to me—its content, but not its location. Of course, the content of a book is in large part its location. This means that I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up in conversation, because I can situate it with relative precision in relation to other books. I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc. And as a result, I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.

On the one hand, this shows how much of a hypocritic stand this is, for his book could suffer a similar fate, which I am sure he wouldn’t want; and on the other hand, it shows how good a writer Pierre must be that he could provoke his readers right from chapter one.

And as I said earlier, Pierre is indeed a master tactician, which you realize quite quickly as you go past the provoking first chapter and realize that what he means by non-reading is not really non-reading as I put it here, but a wide array of different activities such as listening, forgettingThis I feel is a fallacious inclusion as recalling a forgetten book would mean that you have read the book, and this only goes to show that how hard he's trying to rake in as much support against reading as a virtuous activity, skimming, discussing etc. So, technically speaking, I’ve not been entirely honest about Pierre’s views here, but it doesn’t matter because the overarching idea is still about a book and how to talk about it without reading it.

This is to say that even if you listen to everything there is to listen, and discuss everything there is to discuss about the book, you would still be representing only a fraction of the whole; and given the reality that most discussions that we have never amount to anything more than a superficial chat(which more often than not devolves into an argument)—unless of course, you are already well-versed in the topic under discussion in which case none of what I said really matters—it makes no sense at all whatsoever to believe that non-reading even as composite an activity as Pierre makes it out to be can trump the value of actually reading a book.

Note that I am not trying to devalue the act of listening or discussing, but instead trying to show how a book is more than just a mere collection of facts and stories; and how non-reading can only help with activities that involve facts and never with the act of falling in love with the book or the author. It is a matter of responsibility and above all a matter of commitment to preserving the efforts of the author by the reader. To put it in simple terms, the moment you decide to learn about something you form an implicit agreement with yourself to be true to the material and to do justice to it, which I doubt can ever be achieved completely using other modes of knowledge acquisition(listening, discussing, skimming).

To be blunt about it, books teach you how to talk even when you are not in an actual conversation, books teach you to how to fall in love even when you are not in an actual relationship, and above all, booksObviously, I am the right books teach you to be a human even when the entire world—the so-called "real world"—seems inhumane. Or as James Richardson would put it:

"All but the most durable books serve us simply by opening a window on all we wanted to say and feel and think about. We may not even notice that they have not said it themselves till we go back to them years later and do not find what we loved in them. You cannot keep the view by taking the window with you."

Note that here he is alluding to the value of passive profundity that stays in you unbeknownst even to you until you discover it for yourself and come back to it to get a glimpse of the view only to realize that the moment matters. And just as taking the window with you does not allow you to keep the view, discussing about a book or listening to discussions on it do not too. I feel it is this mistaken disconnect that makes people like the author of this book come to such outrageous conclusions, for it takes more than just reason to understand that books are more than just gadgets and that they have value beyond what the reasonable and smart part of your brain can come up with.

I know that I sound a little too romantic in my approach to reading, but it doesn’t make any sense to me as to how one can be so detached and still do justice to the author and the material. And since when was sophistry renamed to having a critical opinion? Pierre in one of his chapters gives an example of Valery, who he says despite not having read Proust could talk in length about his character and work in the most general manner possible. If this is not sophistry then I do not know what is. To know Proust is to travel with Proust, to know Proust is to live the melancholy with him and to know Proust is to never use the word ProustianProust Gatekeeper Here. And Pierre in talking about Valery describes him as a Shrewd Genius who could talk easily about anyone and anything for however long he wanted. Is that all what reading is about? To be able to talk about something? By that logic, Valery if given a chance would have just thrown away Meditations and the Essays by Montaigne describing them as a journal and a life-log. Omg!

And if you think I sound romantic and over-the-top, you should read the entire book for yourself, or perhaps skim it as the author advises, to understand how much of it is an attempt towards romanticizing the idea of non-reading.

Understand that I am not against the Bayardian ways of knowledge acquistion – learning by participating in a discussion, listening to others speak about the topic, recalling from memory your impressions on the topic etc. In fact, I am not even against the idea of cursory reading as a means to gain knowledge about the topic. My main cause of worry with this is the willful degradation of the act of reading just to rationalize the other modes of knowledge acquisition, or as Pierre likes to call it - "Non-Reading". It seems to me that Pierre after becoming a literature professor just let the hedonic treadmill take away that appreciation of beauty in words that brought him to this wonderful profession in the first place. But what do I know, he is a professor of literature and an expert Psychoanalyst, so this might just have been his attempt at provoking people and gauging their reaction as part of his mass Psychoanalytic experiment. Having said that, what I can definitely tell from having read the book in its entirety is I have never been so much troubled after having read a book as with this one, and what bothers me furthermore is that he is persuasive and to an extent that if you go with an empty mind, you’ll come out a convert. So beware!

Oh! and please do not stop reading.

References

[1] Pierre Bayard. 2007. "Talking about books you haven't read"