How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

by Pierre Bayard · read July 7, 2021

Review

I enjoyed this book; it alternated between providing entertainment and food for thought about what it means to 'read' a book. I especially like the concept of an 'inner book', wherein our own representations shape how we interpret what we read. I also liked the exhortation to never tell an author what you thought about their work, and Wilde's suggestion of publishing lists of books that one shouldn't read.

Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what been grasped of it.

Notes

Constraints — obligation to read, to read thoroughly, and to read a book before discussing it

Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these spectres.

Books you don't know

There are just too many books to read

The location of a book (how it is situated with respect to other books) is important

collective library: "the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment"

The overall view of relationships books have to each other is more important ("relations among ideas are far more important than the ideas themselves")

Books you've skimmed

Like the location, the contents of the book might be best understood from a birds' eye perspective

Books you've heard of

We can encounter books just by hearing people discuss them

A book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires.

screen books: what the reader knows or believes to know about the book

   (Not accurately representative of what the book actually is)

Books you've forgotten

Reading is inevitably forgetting; we discuss only approximations

But the fact that the implications of forgetting are not altogether negative does not solve all its associated problems, especially the psychological ones. Nor does it dispel the anguish intensified by the daily obligation of speaking to others, of not being able to fix anything in one's memory. (50)

We don't remember books — we just retain surviving fragments

Confrontations and behaviours

inner library: books around which a personality is constructed

inner books: representations through which we understand new books

Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what been grasped of it. (98)

Since we all have inner books, there's distance between our readings

the books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to place a role (102)

virtual library: the intersection of each participant's inner library

Communication about books dominated by images

We allow each other a degree of ambiguity about the extent to which we've read a book

We can think of the text as malleable: the position of the book is defined by other social and psychological forces (author's reputation, literary trends)

The book does not change materially, but it undergoes modification to its situation in the collective library.

Wilde — there should be a list of books not to read

Trying to critique a work might cause you to lose reflection on yourself

The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. (178)

It is ourselves we should be listening to, not the 'actual' book.

Julia Cooke © 2022