How To Think About Books You Think You’ve Read

Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read argues that you don’t really need to read books to understand them and that there really isn’t such a thing as ‘reading’ as we think about it. He describes four different relations that you could have to a book: books you don’t know, books you’ve skimmed, books you’ve heard of, and books you’ve forgotten. Not that he doesn’t include either side of the read/haven’t read binary in that list.

He is, however, writing this all down in a book, and as a reader of that book, I had to ask myself the question “how does the fact of a reader’s consumption of his argument influence said argument?” Bayard’s two arguments — that you don’t need to read a book to understand it and that there’s no such thing as ‘reading’ as the word is traditionally defined — are influenced differently when their mode of conveyance is considered.

His argument on the first point is long and complicated, relying on another argument he makes about books, as they exist in the sphere of conversation, being informed more by the opinions that are known to be held by others regarding them than they are by the actual texts of the books themselves. In the book’s second section, “Literary Confrontations,” he covers all the scenarios in which discussion of books can arise, and demonstrates how someone who either has only heard of a book in passing or is learning about it for the first time, can more accurately just the book than someone who’s supposedly ‘read’ it. He does show that, in all those scenarios, someone can demonstrate that they’ve read a book without putting in the work required to actually do so, and this is what he bases success in these scenarios on — avoiding embarrassment. After all. the book is titled How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, it shouldn’t be surprising that it bases reading’s worth on whether it improves your ability to talk about books.

So, bearing in mind that the book assumes the farcical stance that reading a book is only valuable so long as it helps you avoid embarrassment, the reader’s actually taking the energy to read the book becomes an extension of the joke — you don’t read for the sake of others, reading is a process of personal enrichment. In this way, the book argues against one of its supposed theses, pointing out the problems with using breadth of book consumption as a status symbol within the literary community.

In regards to the other half of the thesis, since by reading the book, the reader flips the book’s first argument into an argument that reading is an activity motivated principally by personal enrichment, the argument that we’re incapable of actually ‘reading’ a book in the way we think we’re supposed to stands in stark opposition to the theory of personal gain. Bayard doesn’t allow for ‘reading,’ only skimming or forgetting. This invites the reader to think back over their ‘reading’ of the book and see how accurately those descriptors apply. There were likely parts that the reader only glossed over and he likely forgot enough of the closely-read rest of the book to make that ‘reading’ indistinguishable from skimming. Even if the reader memorizes the words, Bayard argues that actual reading requires putting oneself into the gaps in the language to actually understand what’s being said, and that experience of reading can’t be remembered with the language.

Bayard allows for the possibility that reading exists, but it surely isn’t something that can be claimed when talking about a book. We can ‘read’ a finite section of a book, but after the words are even slightly in the rearview, the experience of interpreting them is so foggy that we can only rightly describe our knowledge of that experience as skimming. That’s because Bayard thinks that books aren’t the words on the page, but the associations derived from them, which inevitably deteriorate in time. Just as, when discussing a book, an awareness of the opinions surrounding a book are more material than the text itself, when reflecting on a book, our memory of the reading experience — which is only ever imperfect — is the only thing of actual worth.

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English major, Dickinson College 2018. | Interests: writing, reading, anything that gives him the feeling that he’s doing something productive, watching youtube videos in inventive new positions, throwing baseballs up to himself and hitting them, walking on the raised part of the sidewalk, climbing trees, and generally enjoying all the sensory wonders of life most commonly indulged in by small children. | Dislikes: Describing himself. | Go-to ice cream flavor: generally cotton candy, but leaning more towards pistachio these days. The growth both his maturity and palate have undergone has been incredible. | Favorite NBA player: Deandre Jordan– he seems like a well put-together adult and the only thing nastier than the slams he lays down is the stink eye he gives afterwards. Sam still feels bad for Brandon Knight, it seems like he really disappointed Deandre. | Favorite soccer team: He doesn’t watch soccer and therefore doesn’t have a favorite team. This was a bad question. | Filmic crush: Rooney Mara circa “Her” and nothing else. Not really sure why that is, maybe it has less to do with Rooney Mara and more to do with the fact that she’s presented as being a former source of happiness that is now unattainable. | Favorite season: thinks they all have their own merits and that they’re too different to be properly judged. | Favorite Season of Alf: Same answer. | Most potentially devastating celebrity death: Danny Pudi. The man is so full of life. | Favorite dog: His.

2 thoughts on “How To Think About Books You Think You’ve Read”

  1. I feel it is tempting to pretend I have read Bayard’s book in this comment, but I must respond to two points in your post instead. First, intellectual enrichment should be an attractive element of reading. But what of reading’s aspect of amusement? The transference of ideas is conversational because the writer wishes to capture the reader’s attention. Second, your point that focuses on the importance of memory of the reading. While memory of a reading is imperfect, what about writing? I find that free writing and annotations commit information to memory while simultaneously responding in conversation with the work. By understanding what you think by writing it, your opinion holds significance in your memory then when first writing it. Does Bayard ever mention writing, or writing’s significance to reading?

  2. After reading your selection for our seminar and following up with this blog post, one of the things I’m most curious about is what you’ve defined here: “Bayard thinks that books aren’t the words on the page, but the associations derived from them, which inevitably deteriorate in time. ” If the very function of literature depends solely on how subjective readers (across time/space) respond to them, then this definitely would go along with suggesting that the intentional fallacy holds. However, in the same vein of thought provided by James Downey’s critique of the intentional fallacy, I’m wondering if there is a similar fallacy to be said for completely open interpretations of literature–or the idea that literature Specifically, I imagine a scenario where a writer has a very specific occasion for a piece of literature: say, a novel about Pennsylvania politics. If I walked in and the associations I made were to California politics, the parallel I’m drawing might be valid but I don’t think it would change the meaning of the novel. The example I’ve put forth here definitely reminds me of the Stanley Fish article we read earlier in the semester, in terms of ho we define literature and how we pull meaning from it.

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