Discussing literature as art?
The New York Times
November 11, 2007

Faking It


By Pierre Bayard. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman.

185 pp. Bloomsbury. $19.95.

Carrying this book around recently I’ve caught more than a little flak, not least from my kids, who once thought of me as a literary intellectual, or at the very least as a guy who espoused the virtues of reading. Hey, really, I told them — as well as my wife and the guy sitting next to me on the subway — no kidding, it’s a serious book, written by a professor of literature who’s also a psychoanalyst. A French professor/shrink, no less, who’s written books on Proust, Maupassant, Balzac, Laclos and Stendhal, among other canonical heavyweights. So lay off.

It seems hard to believe that a book called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” would hit the best-seller lists in France, where books are still regarded as sacred objects and the writer occupies a social position somewhere between the priest and the rock star. The ostensible anti-intellectualism of the title seems more Anglo-Saxon than Gallic, an impression reinforced by the epigram from Oscar Wilde: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.”

Bayard’s critique of reading involves practical and theoretical as well as social considerations, and at times it seems like a tongue-in-cheek example of reader-response criticism, which emphasizes the reader’s role in creating meaning. He wants to show us how much we lie about the way we read, to ourselves as well as to others, and to assuage our guilt about the way we actually read and talk about books. “I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex, in which it’s as difficult to obtain accurate information,” he writes. There are many ways of relating to books that are not acknowledged in educated company, including skimming, skipping, forgetting and glancing at covers.

Bayard’s hero in this enterprise is the librarian in Robert Musil’s “Man Without Qualities” (a book I seem to recall having read halfway through, and Bayard claims to have skimmed), custodian of millions of volumes in the country of Kakania. He explains to a general seeking cultural literacy his own scheme for mastery of this vast, nearly infinite realm: “If you want to know how I know about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.” If he were to get caught up in the particulars of a few books, the librarian implies, he would lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the relation of the books to one another — the system we call cultural literacy, which forms our collective library. “As cultivated people know,” Bayard tells us, “culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter of not having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.”

Musil’s librarian is a purist, but a perusal of the reviews in this and other publications would probably yield, if only we had the proper instruments, many less extreme examples of literate nonreading. Book reviewers generally imply that they have read the entire oeuvre of the author under discussion, as well as those of his peers, and I have no doubt they will continue to do so. You’d think Nicholson Baker’s “U and I” (a short book I read in its entirety), in which the younger novelist writes a kind of critique of John Updike based on his admittedly fragmentary and incomplete reading, would have cured us of the omniscient stance in book reviewing. But I don’t see many phrases like “From what I’ve read about ‘Moby-Dick ...” or “the part of ‘Finnegans Wake’ that I tried to read ...” in the review pages. Bayard, though, regards such disclaimers as understood. He doesn’t blame us for fudging, and he doesn’t want us to blame ourselves.

He proposes, and employs, a new set of scholarly abbreviations to go along with op. cit. and ibid.: UB: book unknown to me; SB: book I have skimmed; HB: book I have heard about; and FB: book I have forgotten.

For Bayard, who is well served by Jeffrey Mehlman’s fluid and elegant translation, skimming and sampling are two of the most common forms of reading behavior, particularly with regard to Proust. Paul Valéry, in his funerary tribute in La Nouvelle Revue Française, makes a virtue out of his admittedly sketchy knowledge of Proust by claiming: “The interest of the book lies in each fragment. We can open the book wherever we choose.” Bayard defends skimming as a mode of reading. “The fertility of this mode of discovery markedly unsettles the difference between reading and nonreading, or even the idea of reading at all. ... It appears that most often, at least for the books that are central to our particular culture, our behavior inhabits some intermediate territory, to the point that it becomes difficult to judge whether we have read them or not.”

Lest the reader, or the nonreader, think that Bayard underestimates the power of reading, he proposes that we are all essentially literary constructs, defined by our own inner libraries: the books we’ve read, skimmed and heard about. “We are the sum of these accumulated books,” he writes. (And make no mistake about it, this prof is far more literate and widely read than he pretends to be.)

After anatomizing the different types of nonreading, Bayard addresses the social implications in a section called “Literary Confrontations.” I commend his advice for meeting an author and being forced to say something about his or her new book: “Praise it without going into detail.”

The funniest section in the book describes the encounter between the anthropologist Laura Bohannan and an African tribe, the Tiv, whom she has been living among. She tries to read “Hamlet” to them in the hopes of demonstrating the universality of the story, but the way in which the tribe rejects those parts of the tale that don’t square with their own cultural traditions — they don’t believe in ghosts, for instance — renders the attempt ludicrous.

Bayard proposes the term “inner book” to designate “the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.” This notion coincides with Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” of readers, although Bayard’s own inner book may be more indebted to home-team text destabilizers like Derrida and Lacan. Indeed, Bayard sounds more French in the later pages as he employs phrases like “consensual space” and dissolves the boundaries and false oppositions between reader and writer and book into one big sloppy pool of écriture.

To what end? Bayard finally reveals his diabolical intent: he claims that talking about books you haven’t read is “an authentic creative activity.” As a teacher of literature, he seems to believe that his ultimate goal is to encourage creativity. “All education,” he writes, “should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.”

It’s a charming but ultimately terrifying prospect — a world full of writers and artists. In Bayard’s nonreading utopia the printing press would never have been invented, let alone penicillin or the MacBook.

I seriously doubt that pretending to have read this book will boost your creativity. On the other hand, reading it may remind you why you love reading.

Jay McInerney’s most recent books are “The Good Life,” a novel, and “A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company