Bayard: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Pierre Bayard’s 2007 book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a real page turner.

The best I can tell, it’s an elaborate joke in which the authorial voice is a kind of fictional character. This character –I’ll call him Bayard while remaining agnostic about how he relates to the historical Bayard who actually authored the book– is utterly devoted to non-reading, and is impenitent about combining so much talking about books with so much non-reading of books.

There are some wonderful passages throughout the book, and even the Table of Contents is funny: Ways of Not Reading, Not Being Ashamed, Imposing Your Ideas, etc. But my favorite page comes very early, before the Preface, even. It’s a List of Abbreviations that includes, along with the obligatory Op. cit. and Ibid, these charming notations:

UB          book unknown to me

SB           book I have skimmed

HB          book I have heard about

FB          book I have forgotten

++          extremely positive opinion

+             positive opinion

-             negative opinion

–           extremely negative opinion

That’s good stuff, but it really pays off when Bayard starts using these abbreviations in the course of the book. For example, on p. 16, he observes

In his posthumously published book Against Sainte-Beuve, Proust advanced the theory that a literary work is the product of a different self from the person we know; in A la recherche de temps perdu, he illustrated this theory through the character of Bergotte.

And the footnotes dutifully record Bayard’s interaction with the two texts: HB+ and HB++, respectively. It’s a breathtaking kind of honesty. Imagine if all authors had to make some notation of the actual depth of their familiarity with every book they referred to! Later he shows that he can say intelligent things about Joyce’s Ulysses (HB++), such as its relationship to Homer’s Odyssey (SB and HB++).

Bayard uses enough irony and playfulness to throw anybody off track. Some of the heavier sentences sound like they could have come straight from serious practitioners of postmodern literary theory. For example,

Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.

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