- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: Granta Books (2 Jan. 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1847080561
- ISBN-13: 978-1847080561
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.4 x 19.7 cm
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 758,006 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read Paperback – 2 Jan 2009
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'A foxy French bestseller, this theoretical jeu d'esprit - is the perfect gift for dinner-party pseuds' Daily Telegraph 'Rich, meaty and immensely enjoyable' Sunday Times 'Brilliant stuff' The Times 'A witty and painfully accurate analysis of the ways in which we get acquainted with literature and the part it can play in our lives' Independent 'A guide to maintaining a healthy, guilt-free relationship with books. I found it liberating' New Statesman
In this disarmingly mischievous and provocative book, already a runaway bestseller in France, Pierre Bayard contends that in this age of infinite publication, the truly cultivated person is not the one who has read a book, but the one who understands the book's place in our culture. Drawing on examples from works by Graham Greene, Umberto Eco, Oscar Wilde, Montaigne (who couldn't remember books he himself had written), and many others, he examines the many kinds of 'non-reading' (forgotten books, unknown books, books discussed by others, books we've skimmed briefly) and the many potentially nightmarish situations in which we are called upon to discuss our reading with others (with our loved ones, with the book's author, etc).At heart, this is a book that will challenge everyone who's ever felt guilty about missing some of the Great Books to consider what reading means, how we absorb books as part of ourselves, and how and why we spend so much time talking about what we have, or haven't, read.See all Product description
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I read it earlier this summer. I forgot everything about it.
Not amazingly the chapters I enjoyed most were those using books I have actually read to illustrate a particular facet of non-reading - ie: Eco's The name of the Rose; Greene's The Third Man, and David Lodge's Small World & Changing Places; and Hamlet. Each of those chapters made me want to go and re-read the source. However, I have no desire to visit any of the other major books used, mostly obscure (to me) French texts, and thus previously unknown to me (UB-) but are now heard of (HB--) and will remain so! - these were the bits I skimmed.
Interestingly the author declines to specifically say whether he has actually fully 'read' any of the books mentioned or analysed. I also found a witty degree of self-parody, as we learn very little about the author's personal reading habits. This is extended to the fact that he uses many examples of fictional non-reading that authors have created in their books to illustrate his thesis!
I admit, I'm think I'm quite a dab hand at talking about books I haven't yet read, as my own to be read pile is about 1000 books - and I do read the blurbs and reviews before filing them, and I adore looking at books on a shelf. This skill also enables me to say "Oh I've got that, but not read it yet" with monotonous regularity when helping to choose a book at our Book Group.
Don’t judge this book by its title; it is emphatically not a book for bluffers or dummies. It’s a serious exploration of how cultivated people develop ways of not reading, exemplified by interesting case studies from literary works (but no non-fiction books).
I approached the book with a little trepidation, knowing that the author is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst and that some practitioners of these disciplines make implausible claims in pretentious language. I need not have worried, as this composition is credible and engaging.
An extract from the first chapter gives a flavour: “As cultivated people know…, culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.” As an example, Pierre Bayard says that he hasn’t read Joyce’s "Ulysses" but knows “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.”
Many of the points made in this book resonated with me, as if I had always known them despite not having explicitly formulated them for myself. I especially enjoyed the chapter on how our knowledge of books is affected by memory and forgetting. For me, the material on forgetting was reinforced in a later chapter, which happens to discuss a book I read so long ago that my memory of it had faded to the point where I could hardly claim to know it. The book in question is David Lodge’s “Changing Places”. Having read Bayard’s discussion of it, I wondered just how much I had forgotten. I would not normally have considered re-reading it because, although I enjoyed Lodge’s early works, I disliked one of his recent novels so much that I abandoned it halfway through, and this experience irrationally put me off his earlier works. I have now set aside that irrationality and have just re-read “Changing Places”; an ironic outcome from reading a book about not reading.
In explaining why it may be possible to outline the contents of a book without having read it, Bayard points to several contributory factors. One factor is that “All works by the same author present more or less perceptible similarities of structure, and beyond their manifest differences, they secretly share a common way of ordering reality.” I mention this because I was planning to write more in this review but I won’t because you could deduce what sorts of things I would say by looking at the structure of my other book reviews.
Yet I can’t resist saying one more thing. While reading this book, it occurred to me that the ideas in it could be applied to other areas of human endeavour. Now I discover that the author has already done so, in his book “How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been”. But I haven’t read that.
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