"How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read", by Pierre Bayard

by Callmesalticidae8 min read3rd Sep 20201 comment

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Salticidae Philosophiae is a series of abstracts, commentaries, and reviews on philosophical articles and books.

Somewhere out there is a universe where my first post here was How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and ours is flawed by comparison. Still, I've gotten to it at last, and here we are, with everything you need to know in order to talk about How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, without having read it.

I can only hope that Pierre Bayard gets an inexplicable warm feeling in his chest at the moment that I publish this post.

Highlights

  • We do not have access to, or an unfiltered "true" understanding of, any text.
  • The first reason for this is that our experience of any text, and our understanding of that text, is filtered by factors like our experiences with other books, our preconceptions, etc.
  • The second reason is that, even as we are reading a book, we fail to have a perfect recollection of what we have read, transforming it into a "book we have (partly) forgotten."
  • More important than having read a book is being able to understand its content, its relation to other books, and so on, which are all theoretically possible without even picking up the book.
  • Do not be afraid to talk about a book that you have not personally read.
  • Do, however, be upfront about the degree to which you are familiar with it, and in what ways.

Chapter-by-Chapter

Preface

The preface is worth noting for this passage:

As I will reveal through my own case, authors often refer to books of which we have only scanty knowledge, and so I will attempt to break with the misrepresentation of reading by specifying exactly why I know of each book.

The four abbreviations which Bayard uses are:

  1. UB, or books unknown to me.
  2. SB, or books I have skimmed.
  3. HB, or books I have heard of.
  4. FB, or books I have forgotten.

Bayard also uses the symbols - -, - , +, and ++ to denote various degrees of positive and negative opinion. Together with the previous abbreviations (which will be elaborated on in the next section), Bayard would like to see this system be more widely adopted.

  • Bayard could have been clearer (here or in the upcoming chapters) about the demarcations between each category, however. It's unclear to me where the dividing line should be drawn between UB and HB, or (to a lesser extent) SB and FB.

Ways of Not Knowing

The primary problem is that we have practical access only to a certain number of books (and the internet ultimately makes this problem worse, not better, because we can access more books than ever before but they also exist in a far greater number). Reading is also non-reading: every decision to pick up a book is also a decision to not pick up every other book.

Sometimes what we are talking about is not even the book itself but a fantasy of a book. We can exchange comments about a book and build beliefs (accurate or otherwise) about a book without having read it, or even build new beliefs about a book we have read in response to the comments of other people.

The collective library is the cultural discourse and context in which books exist. A book may be UB, or unknown to me, but I may still be able to place it in the collective library or understand its relevance. For example, I have never read Paradise Lost, but I know what's going on when someone says that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. I can, furthermore, not just understand references to it but make valid references of my own to that text. Another example might be the Arthurian mythos: Very few of us have read The Once and Future King, let alone any other Arthurian texts, but most of us can answer various questions about King Arthur.

SB, or skimmed books, are just that, but Bayard believes that this can be valuable, and sometimes even more valuable than reading the book more closely. We can skim linearly or circuitously, and someone who has skimmed may still get the essential facts. For example, one doesn't need to study the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius very long to understand that the central message is this: We need to focus on controlling ourselves rather than worrying about outside circumstances which we cannot control, and also Marcus Aurelius would really prefer to be dead.

Next are HB, or books which one has heard of. It is possible to get enough information about a book to meaningfully engage on it. Returning to a previous example, I am not only culturally literate with regard to Paradise Lost but could talk for a fair while on its plot, characters, themes, and so on, between what I have heard about the book in particular and what I know of its author, John Milton, and the ideas which would have appealed to him, etc etc. I can follow a conversation on Paradise Lost, and even start one.

Last of all there are the FB, or forgotten books. Only a few people have perfect memories, so for the majority of us, every book we have read is a book which we have, to one degree or another, forgotten. For the reasons described in this book, Bayard prefers to not refer to "books which I have read," or which he has "not read," but FB may be the abbreviation which most closely approximates the first.

It is worth noting that, after UB, the most common reference is to SB and HB, together, and that there are are also books which are SB, HB, and FB. Also, it is absolutely emblematic of this book that Bayard feels no shame in assigning negativity or positivity to UB in exactly the same manner as the other markings.

  • "For a true reader, one who cares about being able to reflect on literature, it is not any specific book that counts, but the totality of all books." pg 30 para 4
  • Though the object of this post is to let you get away without reading the book, I believe that it is worth reading just for the pages on Michel de Montaigne, who writes, "To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I had read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgment I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it."

Literary Confrontations

If we have both skimmed a book, then we might be talking about different books, really. It's possible for two people to skim different books and come away with the same general idea (consider how derivative and generic many fantasy novels are, for example), or to skim the same book but come away with different enough ideas about that book that, if not for the title, they might not realize in later conversation that they had skimmed the same book. 

The "inner library" is the set of books around which you in particular are constructed. Each of us is the sum of our own inner library. The inner book is a "fragmentary and reconstituted object" which is not the book itself, as an objective text existing outside yourself, but the book as you understood it: Roger Ebert and I may both go to the theater together (or we might have done, before he died) but we will, in this sense, be watching very different films.

The "inner book" is personal to us. It is the filter which encounters every new text and determines which elements we consciously perceive, and how we interpret those elements. The reason that Ebert and I will have watched different films is that we have different inner books. Writing is the act of bringing, in one form or another, our inner book into the world, but because our hands are imperfect and because everyone has their own inner book, this is usually unsuccessful.

  • One chapter is mostly a retelling of "Shakespeare in the Bush," which you can read in its complete form here.

Ways of Behaving

Do not be ashamed over a failure to have read a book. We need to be honest with ourselves and others about the degree to which we have not read things.

Talking about books is, of course, not reading, but the virtual library is the space in which we discuss books, and in which our inner books meet (or try to meet). Because it is a space of discussion, and none of us actually has direct access to the text itself (mediated, as the act of reading is, by our personal filters), the virtual library does not contain any "objectively existing" books but only a plethora of subjective experiences of books. There is currently a great resistance to the idea of (to use my own wording) calcifying the virtual library and acknowledging this fact.

The book is not the thing. The text can be changed by the conversation. The discussion surrounding the book is also part of the book. Books are reinvented in the reading. There are "Phantom books" based on mistaken recollections.

  • Sometimes reading is harmful. Oscar Wilde had three categories: books to read, books to reread, and books to convince people to not read.
  • Creators are critics and critics are creators. Talking about things is an act of creation.
  • "If it is true that he hasn't 'read' Hamlet, Ringbaum certainly has at his disposal a great deal of information about it and, in addition to Laurence Olivier's movie adaptation, is familiar with other plays by Shakespeare. Even without having had access to its contents, he is perfectly well equipped to gauge its position within the collective library." pg 124-125 para 2.

Favorite passage

This encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain encouragement not to read at all. Faced with a quantity of books so vast that nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain? [pg 6 | para 2]

Additional comments

It might be worth talking about the Bible (or rather, our ways of reading and talking about the Bible) in order to give further examples of what Bayard means.

First of all, any such discussion "of what Bayard means" is already running into forgotten books and virtual libraries and so forth. I'm only making this post several years after I originally purchased Bayard's book and read it for the first time, and I think I read it a couple more times after that, highlighting it and adding marginalia at least once in all those readings (and on another occasion I read bits and pieces, making it, at that point, a Skimmed Book). Then I began to read it again, almost two years ago, and this time took more complete notes until, two-thirds of the way through, something distracted me and I set the book aside till recently, when I read finished the last part of the book at last and...waited several more weeks before I returned to my notes and created this post as you see it now.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is very definitely a Forgotten Book for me, and in some ways it is also a Heard Book: I've only read one other blog post on this book, but all these notes which "I" made are from people who are, to varying degrees, arguably not myself. To what extent do they fill the same role as totally separate persons who are merely telling me things which they recall, and which, at this point, I no longer do?

This is a book which I have skimmed, heard about, and forgotten. It is a book which was at some point unknown to you, and which you have now heard about. When I talk about "what Bayard means," what you are getting is a filtered conception of my filtered conception of what Bayard means, and at every step of the way there has been a transformation of information, from the point that Bayard put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) to the point that you are reading and interpreting these words.

Now, the Bible. Most English-speaking people are familiar with various passages and references. We know about swords turning to plowshares and lions laying down with lambs, what is meant when someone reminds you that some politician or priest does not "walk on water," and when someone refers to the Book of Genesis they are talking about one of the Bible's constituent parts. This is the Bible in the context of the cultural library.

We all have a personal interpretation of the Bible, to whatever extent we are familiar with. Slaveholders and abolitionists both referred to the Bible in support of their respective positions, and we can say that there was outright willful misrepresentation to one extent or another, in some number of cases, but that leaves out the role of motivated reasoning in the production of a genuinely-held interpretation. At least some slaveholders truly believed that there was a Biblical mandate for that institution, even if they only came to that belief to support their position, rather than their position as a natural consequence of this interpretation. This is the "inner Bible" as it existed in each person's inner library, and something that many literalists simply do not understand or refuse to accept. Even a "literal" interpretation of the Bible in each of its original languages is going to result in multiple inner Bibles.

This discourse about "the Bible," when each of is speaking according to our inner Bibles, then produces virtual Bibles, which may be very far removed from the objectively-existing Bible, which probably exists and may even be reachable, but which, if we did, we could not know we had reached, and which we still could not transmit to others. Our conversation about the Bible, and the virtual Bible which that conversation alters by its very existence, may, in fact, be more important than any objectively-existing Bible could be.

Author biography

Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst. He is the author of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, and many other books.

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I only skimmed this post, because I understood it before I read it. A fundamental mistake here is thinking of the book as the primary unit of knowledge - a mistake Elizabeth has covered in one of her recent posts.

Of course you can reference Arthur without having read The Once And Future King. That legend is a story that‘s conveyed in many other books and movies, and sometimes still told orally. So perhaps we should replace this with a category called “Dispersed Books” (DB). The Bible is another example. So is Guns, Germs, and Steel.

By contrast, a truly unread book is one whose stories or arguments aren’t broadly known. You’ve never heard of it, or if you have, you know in advance that you’d sound like an idiot trying to talk about it.

Those are just a couple disagreements. I have many more with the categorization scheme.

But the deeper issue at hand isn’t “how do we know what we know.” It’s “how do we police our discussions with other people“ and “how do we justify our beliefs about what we know?”

In a context where you’re vibing, aka shooting the shit, it’s fine to act like you’re way more informed than you really are. That’s kind of the point.

In other contexts, where you’re presenting yourself as a credible authority, you need to make a clear distinction between “ideas you’re an authority on,” “ideas you’re familiar with” and “books you’ve read.”

The smartest people I’ve listened to do this very carefully.

So if the underlying message of this argument is “it’s ok to shoot the shit,” I agree. If it’s “sometimes stories and ideas can be conveyed by texts other than the original,” that’s trivially true. If it’s “you can make assumptions about the contents of a given book, then opine on the book itself,” that seems very wrong to me.