Meta Note:
Unread Books
7 March 2019

¶ In a nutshell, Pierre Bayard’s idea is that all books are unread. Nobody has read anything. 

In connection with work on the writing project (so different already from what it was the first time round), I wanted to put my hands on Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, which I read when it came out, a dozen years or so ago. I wasn’t sure that I still had it; I could easily imagine feeding it to the cull. But I found it without much of a search, and I’ve been re-reading it.

How to Talk is one of those clever productions, sometimes French but more often by Oscar Wilde, in which the world that you know is convincingly turned upside-down and inside-out. Let’s just say that Bayard makes the most of the claim, which I don’t dispute, that those of us without the gift of photographic memories retain very little of the actual contents of any book that we read. Indeed, I find that I tend to rewrite passages that I mean to quote even before I’ve finished the book itself. This was the aspect of Bayard’s book that I fastened upon the first time — no surprise that I found it pretty funny. I also came to suspect that Bayard has actually read most of the books that he discusses. 

This time, the book seems darker, and for a reason that is illuminated by the Balzac chapter toward the end, in which Bayard offers the following insight about Lost Illusions: 

Lousteau and Blondet’s attitude in encouraging Lucien to write contradictory articles would be shocking if the two articles were about exactly the same book. What Balzac is suggesting is that it is not exactly the same in the two cases. To be sure, the physical book remains identical to itself, but no longer represents the same knot of relationships once Nathan’s position in society evolves. Similarly, once Lucien has attained a certain social position, his Marguerites becomes a rather different collection of poems.  (146)

Bayard’s book has changed for me because, like the book that Lucien reviews twice, its context has changed. Perhaps the greatest question posed by the writing project — a question that I must answer in order to write it — is why I have never made a paying career, any kind of career, out of writing. The best answer that I have is still not very clear: I have always feared that doing so would degrade my interest in reading and writing, and hence my ability to do either. It is not that I have a problem with filthy lucre. Oh, no. But I would have a terrible time “writing to the market.”

A cliché that Bayard recycles (on p 98) is that readers never understand exactly what writers were trying to say — much to the dismay of writers who have to hear what readers have to say about their books. When I read this the first time, I agreed that it was sadly true. But since then, as the result of much hard work at The Daily Blague /reader (a site that I’ve had to retire while working on the writing project), I have acquired a slim folder of letters from authors who, coming upon my commentary via Google or somehow, have heatedly thanked me for being, finally, the one person who really got their books. There are not many such letters, six or seven perhaps, but they sound this theme in emphatic unison. So I know that it is possible to read a book well. Why doesn’t it happen more often? 

Bayard’s tone throughout How to Talk answers the question. He is writing to people who read and write for a living (and for students, who seek other, equally well-defined rewards). It is the recurring lot of such people to find themselves obliged to read books that don’t really appeal to them, or to read too many books in too short a time, or — most trying of all, it seems — to read books written by friends and colleagues. The magic of reading and writing, and the very liveliness of thinking, have been compromised by obligation. Pleasure pales into consumption. And I do pause to note that the publishers of book reviews are not particularly interested in wowing authors. Why should they?  

You may dismiss me as “idealistic.” But I know that husbands and wives would no longer live together if marriage entailed this degree of obligation. The institution wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Then again, nobody makes a living by being married.


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