Politics & Policy

To Read or Not to Read

Booking your way through a cocktail party.

“Any overly attentive reading is an obstacle to our deepest understanding of a book,” writes Professor Pierre Bayard in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I review in spite of the obstacle proposed by the thesis. The runaway French bestseller, freshly translated, is a handbook for literary hacks, poseurs, and post-modernists who find themselves carrying a new banner: There is nothing inside the text.

The message, I confess, was attractive to me. Having come into my political maturation, oddly enough, through Ayn Rand, I spent much of high school reprimanding teachers with catchphrases from the Objectivist canon, most of which I hadn’t read. The biblical Atlas Shrugged had felt to me like a transcript of an interminable dinner party, where Rand and Joseph Stalin grappled for the future of the world.

That I didn’t finish Atlas, never opened Anthem, and only skimmed through Rand’s non-fiction, however, rarely softened my grandstanding. This was, in part, because my audiences, being equally ignorant, had no grounds to protest. But even in orthodox Objectivist circles, I could carry on—and even lead—a meaningful conversation for hours. In spite of my limited reading, I had perfectly understood Rand’s philosophy and aesthetic, and could predict her take on just about everything.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read germinates from this point—that a good non-reader recognizes a volume’s place in the “collective library,” its relation to other books and the surrounding culture. “Rather than any particular book,” Bayard says, “it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual.” He proceeds, in three slices, to stack his case against reading—the case, to be sweet about it, for enlightened non-reading.

In the first of these slices, Ways of Not Reading, Bayard discusses the burdens of reading, which he does by examining texts he has almost certainly read. We are introduced to Robert Musil’s fictional librarian who refuses to open his books; apparently, his love of reading—like most love—is conditioned on ignorance. And we are surprised to find that Paul Valery likely never read Marcel Proust, which didn’t stop (and maybe enabled) his interpretations and praise.

In the second slice, Literary Confrontations, Bayard puts the non-reader—whose talents he kindly overestimates—in the position of Valery. Be pushy and inventive about the unknown, he advises, assuring that outlandish statements will be seen as genius or comedy. And he tenders sound advice on dealing with a flesh-and-blood author. Bayard reminds that the writer “expects only that, while maintaining the greatest possible degree of ambiguity, you will tell him that you like what he wrote.”

In this way, the book achieves a sort of charm. At times, it even mesmerizes us—not through intellectual enlightenment, to be sure, but through the glamour of dignifying crazy ideas. We admire Bayard’s audacity as we admire Dr. Emmett Brown of Back to the Future as he explains the theory behind his time machine. The argument is carried not so much by the junk science, but the man with the chaotic hair and bulging eyes.

Ways of Behaving, the third installment, reads rather like a drunken ex-boyfriend stumbling into the honeymoon and demanding to have a talk. (We don’t want the talk; we were content by the humor and the modest but potent idea of identifying a book in the “universal library.” But now we are informed of the library’s “remarkable plasticity.”) To lead us out of the labyrinth, we suddenly find our guide transformed from an amicable Borges to a moralizing Derrida. Reading books is not only excessive, he now tells us, but also insufficient. It is the reader’s obligation to “find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself,” Bayard writes. Through this magical transformation “language is liberated from its obligation to refer to the world.”

Like the terrorizing notes of Beethoven’s Fifth interrupting a ragtime show, this is the melodramatic climax that follows the first two sections of the book, nearly spoiling the mood. And so, awkwardly but swiftly, Bayard’s improvisational theorizing joins a long list of ideas—e.g., end of history, anxiety of influence—that have been ruined by over-casting.

When it doesn’t strive for fashion or fancy, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is delightful—and even insightful. We need not have read Hamlet to know it’s a Shakespeare story about a vacillating prince. Thanks to Bayard, “To read or not to read?” will never seem as primitive or stupid a question as it once did. And the charming professor, in disarming his own knowledge of books, as well as Wilde’s, Valery’s, and Montaigne’s, makes us more comfortable with our petty arsenal.

And that’s nice, because non-reading is stigmatized beyond reason. When confronted by a question on important literature I haven’t read—Ulysses, say—the temptation to lie is great. “Oh, I read it in high school,” I say, meaning to imply, “What half-wit hasn’t read Ulysses? But I cannot allow myself to talk about the greatest of all novels from a schoolboy’s lazy impressions.” Yet is it better to make such an excuse or, as Bayard suggests, to talk boldly and creatively about books we haven’t read?

Whether or not we muster the courage, there remains a question of ability. It’s safe to say that just because Wilde, Valery, and Bayard can talk about books they haven’t read (which, really, they probably have), doesn’t mean we can too. For most of us, who’re just as bad lying as we are reading, there remains only the old-fashioned way to wisdom: Cliffs Notes.

I say this only half in jest. Considering the modern reader’s chronic misunderstanding and harassment of literature, sloppy summaries might actually prove more fruitful than original works.

When I recently checked out Dante’s Inferno from a college library, I found its pages marked up with the comments of the last reader. I thought it would be edifying to have the anonymous college student join Dante and Virgil as they led me through the underworld. I wondered how he might engage and contribute to the ongoing infernal dialogue.

“On march the banners of the King of Hell,” says Virgil in the final canto, as the tour of agony culminates with the six-winged Satan whose “tears ran mixed with bloody froth and pus.” In rhythmic horror, Dante describes the devil’s three heads—one a “fiery red,” the second “something between white and bile,” and the third, “the color one observes on those who live along the banks of the Nile.”

And having found himself here, in the pits of hell, in the heart of fundamental literature, in the company of the great poets, what does my fellow reader think? He writes in the margin: “Racism?”

The single remark justifies the accusation that modern readers neither understand nor deserve the texts they read (let alone those they don’t). Instead of scooping for symbols, seeking poetry, and being at least receptive to majestic truths, they prefer to rewind their petty postmodern formula for one more deconstruction. If hegemony and racism and social constructs are what they seek, then reading is excessive indeed.

But for those in the rising generation who still believe in art, Bayard’s prescription should be read, mused over, laughed through, and surrendered to memory’s fade. Instead of learning to talk about books we haven’t read, we must relearn to talk about books we have read.

Garin K. Hovannisian is a student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

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