How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Book - 2007
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Do we really need to read every book that's published, or do we just need to be able to talk about them convincingly? Already a runaway bestseller in France that's racking up international press coverage even before it's published in English, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is a provocative, witty and mischievous book for lovers of literature (and those who pretend they are!). Literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard argues that "non-reading" can be just as useful an act as reading; 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. Using examples from works by Graham Greene, Umberto Eco, Paul Valery and many others, Bayard 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 (in class, with our loved ones, with the book's author, etc.). At heart, this delightfully tongue-in-cheek book challenges everyone with reader guilt, and will appeal to lovers of Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. "Books aren't so much made to be read as they are to be lived with." (Pierre Bayard) "It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune, not all must be read ... A survivor's guide to life in the chattering classes ... evidently much in need." (New York Times) "Brilliant ... A witty and useful piece of literary sociology, designed to bring lasting peace of mind to the scrupulous souls who grow anxious whenever the book-talk around them becomes too specific." (London Review of Books) "Bayard goes beyond the shallow, insisting that it is possible 'to have a passionate conversation about a book that one has not read, including, perhaps especially, with someone else who has not read it.' It's a bold statement, but one that would sound controversial only to someone who has not been to university." (Globe and Mail, April 7, 2007)
Publisher: Vancouver : Raincoast Books, c2007.
ISBN: 9781551929620
Branch Call Number: 028 BAY
Characteristics: xix, 185 p.


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Dec 04, 2009

I saw this book in my local (and independent, I hasten to add) bookstore about three months ago and put it on hold at my local library, thus failing to support my local bookstore, but since I bought six gift certificates there as end-of-school-year presents for my daughter's teachers, my guilt is somewhat muted. What drew my attention to this book in the bookstore was a delightful passage in which an American scholar, in an attempt to prove her hypothesis that Shakespeare transcends cultural boundaries, retells the story of Hamlet to the Tiv tribe in West Africa. Somewhat to her consternation, the elders' response is mild reproof:

"Why was he (Hamlet's dead father) no longer their chief?"
"He was dead," I explained. "That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him."
"Impossible," began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbour, who interrupted, "Of course it wasn't the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on."

When I finally got my sticky fingers on the tome (being something like 51st in line on the holds list), I was confronted with the Table of Contents:

Ways of Not Reading
I. Books You Don't Know
II. Books You Have Skimmed
III. Books You Have Heard Of
IV. Books You Have Forgotten

...and so on. So one may be forgiven for thinking the book is written entirely tongue-in-cheek, especially when one discovers that the author, a rather dishy professor of French literature at the University of Paris (and a psychoanalyst to boot), has footnoted every mentioned book with his own key system (featured after the Table of Contents). For example, James Joyce's Ulysses is footnoted as "HB++", which means "I've heard about this book and have an extremely positive opinion of it.". Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (that's right, isn't it?), on the other hand, is coded as "SB and FB-": "I have skimmed this book and forgotten it and don't have a high opinion of it."

Presumably Pierre Bayard has read some books, presumably those from which he has quoted extensively, but I'm never quite sure how much he's joking. He might not be. I'd probably be more sure if I'd done more than skim this book, but I do have quite a high opinion of it...

I wonder if I should revise my bookshelves to Professeur Bayard's system....

drewsattack Sep 02, 2009

I thought that it would be a satirical book but it actually reads like a textbook but in a good way. Interesting.


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Jun 27, 2016

Thought-provoking, this book will remind readers of sitting in a college literature discussion. This book explores many controversial ideas about whether reading is actually worth the time, if forgetting books is not like they were even written, and if skimming books allows readers to have more original ideas. Most of all, this book teaches readers how to discuss books they haven't read in social environments.

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