How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (an appreciation)

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As we are in silly season for news stories on global issues it seems appropriate to offer a little whimsy in the form of an apprectiation of Pierre Bayard’s book on talking about books we have not read, which has the same title as this article. Is this as crazy a notion as it seems?

Surely we have all joined conversations about books we have not read, films we have not seen or even places we have never visited. But there is a little more to it than simply an exercise in sophistry.

One of the criticisms levelled at my articles about books by commenters on the web is that I do not know how to write a proper review. The web attracts every kind of pedant under the sun however and what my critics mean is I do not frame my comments about books I’ve read as one would if submitting a high school homework assignment. Readers are grown ups after all and don’t need me to demonstrate an understanding of the niceties of style and grammar, narrative structure and character creation techniques. They want to know if they might enjoy a certain book and what ideas and themes they might find in it. People who do comment on my writing as if they are a teacher grading it as they would a high school homework project usually get a very rude but grammatically and syntactically correct response.

A book that told me by it’s title I had to post an article on it was How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Now if an English writer had written this, it might have been titled “The Art Of Talking Bollocks.” If you would like to read a more formal review, a number are linked to HERE, (scroll down the lined page to find links to reviews in many US, UK, Canadian and Austrialian publications.)

Bollocks is a word that has little currency in the U.S.A. so I can use it with impunity even though it is a tad rude, referring to men’s dangly bits. The word means literally “small balls” and in modern usage refers to the aforementioned components of the male anatomy. Although religious types may deem any reference to parts of the human body between the navel and knee socially unacceptable, the first recorded use of the word bollocks is ecclesiastical. One of King Henry 1st’s spies, sent to Canterbury to get the dirt on Thomas a Becket noted in a report to the king, “The Dean and Chapter walked past chanting plainsong and playing with their bollocks.” Without doubt he was referring to rosary beads although it would be wonderful to think those senior clergymen had been fiddling with their nuts, (an anticipation of a meeting with the altar boys maybe?).

Bollocks is usually used to describe something that fails to meet expectations, as in “That novel was a load of bollocks,” or “I don’t listen to politicians, they all talk bollocks. A meal that is bollocks is on the inedible side of mediocre. On the other hand, something that is “the dogs bollocks” is surpassing good.

Now what about How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read? Is it as ridiculous a notion as it sounds or is there some value in it.

The American mindset tends to take things more literally that that of most Europeans, especially British and French minds, both of which are equally open to the ideas of existentialism and fascinated with wordplay and irony, thus the idea of talking about books we have not read might seem, to an American reader, quite nonsensical while a European would see a lot of potentially interesting possibilities in it. Before reviewing How To Talk About Books We Have Not Read by Pierre Bayard, a French Literary Academic, I must first explain the wholly British concept of talking bollocks (it is only British in that the French have their own name for it.) to help readers understand the concept.

As well as referring to someone who talks through the hole in their bottom, “talking bollocks” also describes a peculiarly Celtic and Anglo Saxon art form art form. In Ireland this art of having a free flowing, desultory and not entirely serious conversation is also known as “Craic”. For those who do not take life too seriously, craic or talking bollocks is a wonderfully entertaining way of passing an evening

Talking about books in an intellectual way is an aspect of this art, in fact I have a degree in talking, or writing, bollocks about books, a.k.a. English Literature.

We have all at times told porkies (abbrev. Pork Pies, rhyming slang for lies) about reading, claiming to have read books we have not so much as opened and in some cases not even read the blurb on the dust cover. Usually this is done to impress somebody, a colleague or someone we fancy. I wonder how many red blooded men (and maybe a few women) in New York have claimed to have read everything Oscar Wilde or the French Romantic poets ever wrote to impress a certain somebody with whom they wanted to spend quality time in a horizontal position.

Pierre Bayard acknowledges that his interest in Talking About Books We Have Not Read is professional, as an academic and teacher in a University he is often required to comment on books he has not read. There are far too many books existing in any major language for one person to have read them all. This led Bayard to understand there is a difference between simple absence of reading and the act of not reading as a cultural activity.

The distinction the author makes is perhaps more noticeable in France where intellectualism is still prized, than in the English speaking world where dumbing down and rampant consumerism have conspired to turn bookish people into distrusted outsiders in our materialistic, property owning, democratic societies.

“Not Reading” as opposed to simply not reading is more complex than simple laziness or lack of interest in the life of the mind; it implies a deep interest in books and literature. The true reader, the book claims, is someone who loves to reflect on literature and to hold an opinion on the ideas that are the essence of any book. In this the author is thinking along the same lines as Oscar Wilde who believed the critic relies neither on author or text. Wilde was proposing the idea that a reader must be creative, must engage with the text in order to interpret it in a personally meaningful way and therefore must become a part of the creative process as is the writer. To read, it is necessary to interpret and to interpret is to write. Wilde would certainly not have felt his not having read a book constrained his right to express an opinion.

The central theme of Talking about Books We Have Not Read stems from the philosophical writing of existentialist philosopher Jaques Derrida. Derrida says text focuses on objects and the systems that support them. Here books are these supporting systems, only important in that they are the vehicles for ideas; their real importance to society lies in the conversations they generate and the exchange of ideas that take place in those conversations.

“Relations between ideas are much more important than the ideas themselves,” Bayard asserts. This is in line with my thoughts expressed in my earlier article, The Genocide Of Ideas.

To put this approach to not reading in perspective we need to reflect on how subjective our interpretations of the events in daily life are and compare that with the subjectivity of our interpretations of the books we read. Is it the case then that Bayard and Derrida were supporting solipsism, the idea that an individual’s mind is the only thing that person can truly know exists? Do we all live in a private universe of our own creation? Not quite.

The value of solipsism is dealt with by two founders of the existentialist way of thinking. David Hume said “There are no great, universal truths, each man’s perceptions are uniquely his own” — NB Politically Correct Thought Police, they did not go in for inclusive pronouns in Hume’s era — while Immanuel Kant said “Objects exist in reality but only a human mind can surround them with time and space.”

I have always thought of solipsism as a mental illness to which politicians and academics are particularly prone. There is, however, a simple cure for this condition which does not involve the patient taking drugs for life. Whenever a slipsist tells you their mind is the only thing that exists, hit them in the face with a shovel, this will assure them that the shovel, as well as their mind, exists.

We share a reality then but each perceive it in slightly different, subjective ways. Thus when hit in the face with a shovel we will all except for those who have congenital analgesia, experience pain, but we will experience it differently.

In illustrating his point, Prof. Bayard repeatedly misrepresents vital plot elements in books by Umberto Eco, John Updike, Graham Greene and others. If challenged, he informs us, he will simply say that he was telling a subjective truth. Culture, he opines,, is “a theatre charged with concealing individual ignorance.” He could be right, but what price would we pay for tearing down that theatre. Are we already paying that price as we bulldoze cultural centres to make way for shopping malls and other Temples of Mammon.

In his theatre joke Bayard sums up the tone of his work, it is playful and tongue in cheek, as if he has played a deliciously naughty trick on more serious minded intellectuals. It is in fact a perfect example of Talking Bollocks although to qualify as ‘good craic’ it would need others involved in the conversation while a book is essentially a dialogue between the words of the author and the mind of the reader.

How To Talk About Books You Have Not Read has a deliciously French feel to it, indeed it could probably only have been written by a French author. The tone is witty and thought provoking but underlying all the intellectual trickery is a serious point,

“We must transform our relationship with books and with ideas.”

Often however, when the word “book” appears in the text it could easily be substituted by “experience” and to prove he is not a charlatan the writer offers insightful analysis of writers such as Proust, Balzac and Shakespeare as well as a critique of Groundhog Day.

Though prone to complicate the obvious he should never be taken at face value, Pierre Bayard is truly multi layered. But of course that is my subjective interpretation of the book. You must judge for yourselves. How To Talk About Books We Haven’t Read is well worth a read.

(True to the spirit of Pierre Bayard’s book Ian Thorpe wrote about it without having read it.).

Opted for comfortable retirement before I was fifty due to health problems and burn out. Now spend my time writing and goofing around. Home: northern England..

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