Tag: Jeffrey Mehlman

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard

Posted December 28, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre BayardTitle: How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read (Goodreads)
Author: Pierre Bayard
Translator: Jeffrey Mehlman
Published: Granta, 2009
Pages: 176
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryWordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Recommended for lovers of Translated Non-Fiction, or Books about Books

There are many books out there about how to be a better reader. The whole books-about-books sub genre is filled with both reading journeys and strategies to improve the way we read. There is only one book I know of that focuses on how to talk about books without having read them. Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read teaches us the art form of not reading.

“Because I teach literature at the university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened. It’s true that this is also the case for the majority of my students, but if even one of them has read the text I’m discussing, there is a risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated.”

Pierre Bayard adopts the persona of a literature professor who is not interested in reading. While I do believe it as a persona, you must wonder how close the truth it might be; he is in fact a professor. He breaks up the books we have not read into four categories. Books You Don’t Know, Books You Have Skimmed, Books You Have Heard of and Books You Have Forgotten, taking the time to give the reader tips on how to talk about books, whether you have read them or not.

 “When we talk about books…we are talking about our approximate recollections of books… What we preserve of the books we read—whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully—is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion…We do not retain in memory complete books identical to the books remembered by everyone else, but rather fragments surviving from partial readings, frequently fused together and further recast by our private fantasies. … What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.”

While Bayard has adopted a tongue in cheek approach to this book, there is a lot of useful information to be found within the pages. The key here is to develop the confidence to talk about books in general. Look at the BookTube community, one of the staples of that is the book haul. Here people discuss the books they have brought recently, most of which have not read been read yet. The idea is to develop the skills and the confidence to talk about these books. For example, if we talk about a book we have not heard of, we can make assumptions about the text based on the author, cover and many other aspects; we do this all the time when in a bookstore. We see a book and determine if it is something we want to read without knowing anything about the content. Books we have skimmed or forgotten about still mean we have valuable things to say, why did we skim? Why was it so forgettable?

While this was a lot of fun to read, the true message of the book really spoke to me. This idea that we need to develop the confidence to talk about books even when we have not read them or forget major points. I read a novel recently and I somehow skipped a very important event, while talking to my wife it became clear I missed it. Embarrassing? Yes, but it proves just how easy it is to forget or skim over an important part of the book. I know I need to develop more confidence to talk about books, and How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read served as a reminder of this fact. I joined a book club, started a BookTube channel, and even a podcast because I want to talk about books, but I know I still have a long way to go in building my confidence in talking about books in general, not just the ones I have read.