PIERRE BAYARD’S HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOUR’VE NEVER READ: IS IT REALLY TONGUE-IN-CHEEK?

(A brief note to say that this week-long absence from this blog feels much longer. May and not April is the cruellest month, if we judge by the overwhelming –or underwhelming– feeling that Spring is here, classes soon to end but pressure on our shoulders is higher than ever. Every conversation with a colleague ends in depression and commiseration. Blame our politicians. Deep breath).

Perhaps, you’re already familiar with Pierre Bayard’s deliciously wicked best-seller How to Talk about Books We’ve Never Read (2007). If you aren’t, go and buy it or check it out of your local library. This is a book in which, as its title indicates, the author –a well-known French professor of Literature– makes the most of the fact that teaching and criticism function without students and teachers really reading the books they discuss. He presents his argumentation in favour of non-reading in a witty way, which, however, I’m not sure how to read. I understand that Bayard is writing tongue-in-cheek but I’m too worried by what goes on in class to relax and enjoy the fun.

Bayard lives in another galaxy, as far as I’m concerned, in which people have conversations about books (apparently in parties…), the chattering classes are important enough in the social landscape and, get this, students WANT to discuss books even though they haven’t read them. His main point is that SHAME prevents academics and other intellectuals, or simply educated people, from acknowledging they haven’t read a book (in students’ case, it’s pure cheekiness). This might be like that in sophisticated France but in plain Spain literary conversation is rare even among Literature colleagues (we discuss paperwork), TV programmes on reading are buried in a corner (as they deserve, since they are embarrassingly… bookish), and Literature students simply don’t open their mouths in class most of the time. Except to yawn. In my face.

Bayard’s idea of shame doesn’t seem to play a significant role. Every Literature teacher I know will simply declare without embarrassment they don’t know a particular book they haven’t read. Ulysses is widely unread, though I understand that not having read Hamlet is a bit too extreme for an English Literature teacher. Students used to claim they had read everything in the syllabus not to lose face but what disarms us is how readily they accept today that they don’t read and don’t even like it. OUR students, here, in English Studies, not the students in, say, Medicine or Law (probably they read more, I don’t know).

Recently a colleague scared the bejeesus out of us, Literature teachers, by saying that perhaps students’ autonomy includes their autonomous decision not to read. No, it doesn’t –Literature students simply DO NOT have the right not to read. They have the DUTY to read. If they don’t want to accept it, they can go elsewhere with they’re right not to read. I admit, as Bayard points out, that many teachers lecture or write about books they may not have read (hopefully, he means the books one mentions in passing, not the set texts!!) but we know ABOUT LITERATURE, that is to say, as he says, about how books connect with each other. And if we know, this is because we’ve read plenty, including histories of Literature.

The problem Bayard can’t discuss, of course, is that even when students read, many don’t read, that is to say, don’t understand. Lying on my table are 63 exams based on a question which had to be answered in reference to a passage. Strictly speaking, only 2 have READ the passage well (= have developed critical thinking about it). The rest offer a mish-mash of plot summary, badly digested class notes and observations about personal life, often twisting the passage out of its meaning to fit a few lines in their essay. Sorry to be so hard but this is it.

Maybe we need another book called How to Speak about the Books We Haven’t Read and Offer Interesting Ideas about Them… But, then, since people don’t read…

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