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.