LET ME COUNT THE BOOKS…: PIERRE BAYARD’S HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ

Allow me to begin by venting my massive annoyance with the new platform which my university has chosen to keep track of our academic activities, as if ORCID, Academia.edu, and my own webpage were not enough. I have spent two and a half complete working days trying to make sense of its user-unfriendly approach to my CV, which I keep as tidy as a work of art (after all, it covers 30 years of my life). Apart from delaying the writing of this post and all my other activities, the platform has given me a terrible headache, enhanced by my realization that I will need at least four more complete working days, if not more, to put everything in its place. In the process, by the way, I have discovered that Scopus only registers one of my publications, when the real figure, leaving aside what I have self-published, is about 100. If I have to enter everything again there, I’ll scream!!! I’m fed up with the co-existence of so many platforms and their general lack of intercommunication.
My topic today is not that, however, but a delicious book by Pierre Bayard, the French scholar and psychoanalyst. I have read his volume Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (2007) in its Catalan translation by David Clusellas i Codina, and my first observation needs to be that in this and in the English translation the final interrogation mark has been lost. What was a query becomes a statement, which is curious to say the least. Apart from the books we have read and know well, Bayard refers to four categories of books: the ones we don’t know, the ones we have skimmed, the ones we have heard of, and the ones we have forgotten. I’m using here the table of contents of the English translation (by Jeffrey Mehlman), though I remain mystified by category two. The French original refers to ‘Les livres que l’on a parcourous’ and I don’t know sufficient French to be sure that ‘skimmed’ is a good translation (‘parcour’ means to travel); the Catalan translator has chosen ‘fullejat’ (‘fuilleter’ in French) which could be translated as ‘leaf through’. In my own reading practice I have never leafed through any book; this is a word I might connect to a magazine or a coffee table book, but not a volume with no illustrations. I was, therefore, totally confused by what Bayard meant until I simply accepted that he does indeed leaf through books he is not too keen on reading.
Please, recall that Bayard teaches Literature at the University of Paris VIII. Although I suspect that the whole volume is written very much tongue-in-cheek, I remain surprised by his willingness to openly declare that he often speaks in class of books he has not read –as his students do. I may have spoken of books I have not read in the context of giving information about an author’s oeuvre but I swear that I have never ever discussed a book I have not read at least twice. I agree with Bayard that many of my students discuss in their exercises books they have never read, and I once had a major incident with a gentleman who casually commented in another course that he had never read any of the books in mine despite having obtained an A. Instead of failing him retrospectively, as I could do, I called him to my office for him to explain to me how he did it, and that was a very interesting meeting. However, I simply cannot imagine what kind of teaching can emerge from a classroom in which absolutely nobody, including the teacher, has read the book under analysis. Bayard claims that is the best possible situation to produce something new and creative but, again, I think he jokes.
One matter in which I do find that he seems more serious is his declaration that (quoting the English translation) “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to others”. If you read ten introductions to Victorian Literature there comes a moment in which you might be able to speak reasonably about the Victorian novel without having read any. If you add to this the Sparknotes summaries then you can pass as a true lover of Victorian fiction. The question, however, is why would you want to do that? It is very unlikely that you would find another person interested in a conversation about Victorian fiction who was also passing him/herself as a reader, so why pretend? I don’t think I could have a minimally intelligible conversation about, say, Italian 19th century fiction, just by being familiar with the main names and titles in a context in which the other person supposed I was a reader of that type of fiction. For me, the knowledge of the book system to which Bayard refers is a process of filling in the blanks, though I confess that to this day I am not sure how many Victorian novels you should have read before qualifying to teach Victorian Literature. I have teaching that for almost 30 years now and, obviously, when I started I had only read a tiny fraction of the Victorian novels I have read now. A list, that anyway, still seems pitifully short to me.
So, my rule number one so far: don’t speak of books you have not read as if you knew them well, for, regardless of what students may think, your not having read them does show. Regarding the books we leaf through, or skim, I must say that now that I think about it there is a type of book I do leaf through: academic books, when I need a quotation for one of my articles. We would all lie if we claimed that we read the academic books we quote from beginning to end, it is simply not the case. I would not leaf through a novel, though, and if I start skimming then this is a sign that my energies are flagging and I am about to abandon the book. I have recently abandoned a 450 page novel around page 320, or as my e-book reader indicates, around 2:30 hours away from the end. I just could not go on, even though my usual rule is that past the 50% mark I must finish. This poses a problem, which Bayard does tackle: he argues that the unfinished book should count as a read book, whereas I tend not to add the unfinished volumes to the list of books I have read (I do keep a list, this is literal not metaphorical). Since I have recently abandoned about half a dozen novels, my list looks pitiful this month, as if I have somehow failed. I have even considered keeping a separate list of unfinished books, but this seems going too far. I see many readers posting reviews in GoodReads in which they do acknowledge they never finished the book under review. They make a point that if an author fails to interest them sufficiently that is part of the process of reading and, hence, of reviewing. This sounds fine to me for a platform like GoodReads but, again, rule number two, I would never teach a book I have not finished, or discuss it academically.
An even more tantalizing concept than that of the unfinished book is the forgotten book. Bayard explains in a wonderful chapter that Montaigne did not know how to tackle the problem of his forgetfulness as a reader until he hit on the system of making a note on the final page naming the date when he had finished the book and adding his opinion. Montaigne, nonetheless, discovered eventually that the method did not work at all; additionally, he felt as if his opinions were someone else’s. I started keeping a list of all I read when I discovered that I had re-read a book I had already read but forgotten. Even with the list, I’ve had some incidents of that kind. And when at the end of each year I go through the list for the last twelve months I inevitably discover one or two books I have already forgotten.
My good friend Bill Phillips has a wonderful capacity to recall the plots of the many novels he reads months after he read them, but my memory is rather mediocre in that sense and I can only recall in detail the books I teach or have written about. These are books that, please recall, I have read at least twice, in some cases ten or more times. This means that I recall having read particular books and having generally enjoyed them or not, but I can only remember specific details if I make notes. From Bayard’s perspective, this means that my whole reading experience consists mainly of books I have forgotten, which might well be the case. I have the impression, besides, that the more I read the more I forget as if my brain were a hard disk with a limited capacity. I don’t know if this is the same for all readers, as we hardly speak about these matters in my academic circle, or with my students.
The other book I’m reading these days, Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great (2014), is a collection of blog posts which she wrote commenting on the science fiction and fantasy she was re-reading for the website Tor.com. Walton does not speak of re-reading as a cure against forgetfulness but as a re-encounter with characters she values as friends. I do not re-read much because, like many other readers, I feel that life is too short to read the same book more than once. I must acknowledge, though, than when I re-read a book I need to teach or write about the pleasure is always bigger the second time around, or even the third. In the case of the two novels I have recently written about (Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312) I only truly loved them in the third reading –not because they are not good books but because I wasn’t paying enough attention. It occurs to me now that I actually choose the books I write about when I implicitly accept that I would like to re-read them, and the other way round: a book I don’t want to re-read is, most definitely, one I don’t want to teach or analyse. Walton, going back to her book, is Bayard’s direct opposite, for instead of speaking of books she does not know, she speaks of books she knows very intimately and to which she returns regularly. I believe this is how it should be done.
So, to sum up, as much as I loved reading Bayard’s book, I would not speak of books I have not read. If someone tells me about a book I have not read I have no problems to acknowledge my ignorance. I remain convinced, in any case, that Bayard’s book is a fine satire against those who speak of books they have not read, perhaps because the possibility that most conversations on books are carried out by people who don’t read scares me too much.

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