Alex Massie

The unread

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Perhaps only a French professor of literature could write a book entitled How to Talk About Books You Have Not Read. Professor Pierre Bayard's book became a best-seller in France this year, and one can see why. After all, a book that promises to lift the oppressive guilt one feels at not having tackled many of the giant literary peaks has a lot to be said for it. At the very least this guilt leaves one feeling somewhat inadequate, especially when one compares the amount of reading done by one's forbears (who admittedly didn't have the distractions of television or cinema or a thousand other things and, equally, for the lucky few, could rely upon servants to relieve them from much of the drudgery of ordinary life. But still...)

As the TLS notes, Bayard suggests that:

"in order to . . . talk without shame about books we haven’t read, we should rid ourselves of the oppressive image of a flawless cultural grounding, transmitted and imposed [on us] by the family and by educational institutions, an image which we try all our lives in vain to match up to. For truth in the eyes of others matters less than being true to ourselves, and this truth is only accessible to those who liberate themselves from the constraining need to appear cultured, which both tyrannizes us and prevents us from being ourselves."

This, of course, is fine, comforting stuff.

I nodded in recognition at this too:

"He divides the works he mentions into four categories: “LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliés” (books he has read but forgotten). Ulysses, for example, falls into the category “LE”: he claims not to have read the novel, but he can place it within its literary context, knows that it is in a sense a reprise of the Odyssey, that it follows the ebb and flow of consciousness, and that it takes place in Dublin over the course of a single day. When teaching he makes frequent and unflinching references to Joyce."

Many of us who have dipped in and out of Joyce without ever feeling compelled to finish Ulysses will know what Bayard is talking about here. Not everyone is quite so understanding, mind you. I recall a Cambridge interview in which the don seemed unimpressed with my using the novels of Sir Walter Scott to illustrate a point despite not having, well, read any of them myself (an attempt to shift the discussion to Scott's poetry which I had actually read proved unsuccessfull). But Scott's Waverley novels were, for me at least, LE novels.

And being LE novels, it has consequently been harder for Scott's novels to make the great leap from being books with which I am familiar to the honoured states of being books I have actually read. In that respect, a LI (livre inconnu) has a better chance, if it is lucky, of eventually being read. So, yes, I  agree with the professor that it's certainly not necessary to have read a book to be capable of talking about it.

The good professor makes another good point:

The second constraint “could be called the obligation to read a book in its entirety. If non-reading is frowned on, speed-reading and skimming are viewed in as poor a light”. For example, “it would be almost unthinkable for professors of literature to admit – what is after all true for most of them – that they have merely skimmed Proust’s work”. Can this really be the case? If so, it’s a dismaying thought – presumably Bayard has had some explaining to do to his colleagues since his book was published in France earlier this year.

Well I would not be surprised if this was indeed the case. Literature departments at universities around the world are well-stocked with frauds after all. So too, of course, are the book pages of your newspaper. You may think that the book reviews you read are the product of careful reading and even more careful consideration. That is a foolish assumption, especially if the book in question is more than 400 pages long. Skimming and skipping are standard operating procedure. It can often be foolish or, in economic terms, irrational to read all the book: ten hours reading followed by an hour's thought and an hour writing for a couple of hundred dollars is not an especially rewarding use of time. After all almost every book published today could have usefully been pruned before being offered to the public.

That being said, dear, gentle reader, what books, what authors even, remain terra incognita to you? To start this confessional I'll admit that, among too many others, I've never read either Proust or George Elliot.

UPDATE: Unlike the rest of the world I've never read JK Rowling. Much, much more appallingly, I'm also woefully ignorant when it comes to, um, Nabokov and Saul Bellow. I have read some of Nabokov's essays but not, alas, his novels. This requires me to make the case, naturally, that Nabokov was a better essayist than novelist.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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