Pierre Bayard's
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
Jerry Pattengale

“Who is Mark Noll?” was an awkward question coming from an academic administrator, accented by his dazed look when I mentioned Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I left that Christian campus with mixed feelings, appreciative of meeting goodhearted professors but pricked deeply by that conversation—his obvious unawareness of a leading Christian thinker.


I have found myself in his role, such as sharing the speaking platform with Martin Bernal before reading his Black Athena. Even more uncomfortable was sitting in England’s famous “pump room” at Bath prior to reading Northanger Abbey while being surrounded by Jane Austin veterans—my students.

Well, according to one French literary superstar, we need not feel guilty anymore.

Author Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature at the University of Paris VIII, suggests that we often find ourselves in the dialogue of the deaf. We discuss books unread by others or ourselves, or the fragments we recall from others’ recollections. He cogently argues that when we skim books we usually are left with a memory of “a different book” than the one recalled by other readers or intended by the author. Bayard finds professors especially feeling guilty for not having read an even longer list of books. Rather, we should be more concerned with being able to place a key author or book in the appropriate place on the shelf of our collective library—the collection of books common to our extended community. These are the big books we all should know.

He intrigues us with his veneer of sincerity in dealing with the constraints we feel as readers. The first constraint is that we’re under “the obligation to read” with special attention to a “canonical list” of any given community. During his beloved postmodern era, most “great books” lists prove problematic. Though the “canon” surviving the Middles Ages and enshrined during Modernity resonated with millions of readers seeking answers about the human condition, postmodern “classics” lists include everything from Proust and Clancy to cookbooks and ecology guides. Author Nick Rennison accents this subjective list approach with his collection of 100-Must Read series ranging from Classic Novels and Crime Novels to Science Fiction.  A second constraint is “the obligation to read a book in its entirety,” which is commonly violated by fast-paced schedules. To compound matters, the third constraint is the academy’s expectation that in order to discuss a book we must have read it.

Bayard’s imagery seems to work prima facie as the proliferation of books keeps our heads spinning. Bayard’s literary illustrations provide context for his strategy, allegedly being transparent about his own time with the respective texts, e.g., citations are marked with “SB” = skimmed book, “UB” = unknown, “FB” = forgotten, “++” = extremely positive, “+” = positive, etc. It’s as if Woody Allen subscripts pop-up with the truth about Bayard’s reading life, accenting Oscar Wilde’s boast, “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.” Bayard contends that “it’s totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven’t read — including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn’t read it either.”

From The Man Without Qualities, Bayard has us follow a laughable love-struck General Stumm into his country’s imperial library. He intended to become educated to impress a woman until realizing it would take over ten thousand years to read all of the library’s books, and that’s if writing stopped. This sense of hopelessness resonates with academics as we walk up to Claremont’s Honnold/Mudd Library or approach the Widener’s steps. The Education section alone at Miami University’s (OH) King Library is beyond one’s reading capacity, and the same with the New York City Public Library’s World War II collection.

The disheveled old librarian, Bayard’s hero, reveals to Stumm his secret for keeping his large collection in perspective—he doesn’t read any of them, only the catalogues. “His love of books—of all books—incites him to remain prudently on the periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.”

I suppose there’s some freedom in this perspective. And likewise most of us have our favorite lit reviews, such as Books & Culture, Times Literary Supplement, Image, Christian Scholar’s Review, The Chronicle Review, The Atlantic, The Virginia Quarterly Review and NewPages.com (which will introduce you to dozens more). So maybe Bayard is on to something with his notion of prioritizing the place of these books in the library—important titles on the right shelves, associated with the right schools of thought.

His best contribution to our reading peril, and an image that has staying power, is his notion of our “inner library” developed in his section on “Encounters in Society.” These are books we’ve actually read or have a confident familiarity with—“around which every personality is constructed, and which then shapes each person’s individual relationship to books and to other people.” When we brush up against someone without familiarity with one of our titles, or with no or very limited overlap with inner libraries, we find ourselves in awkward situations. We should be more concerned about a book’s place among the “collective library” than whether we read it thoroughly. Bayard argues that “we never talk about a book unto itself,” but a whole set of books. Each title “serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture.” Allegedly these inner libraries “have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.” For a book championing non-reading, the previous statement is in tension with his own thinking.

This clever book accents the ingenuity of Bayard, also author of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? But don’t be snookered with the whole enterprise. Like Thoreau’s Walden, Bayard lacks full disclosure and has readers (and reviewers) believing that he actually doesn’t read books. This is asinine—he’s an esteemed literature professor!

But here’s the main rub. Bayard positions reading as a social gauge, for hobnobbing at cocktail parties and impressing peers. If education targets such shallow ends, then we might as well scrap books altogether and save additional time learning his antics of non-reading. At the least, if our main concern (as Bayard argues) is social acceptance we could limit our reading to Michael Dirda’s entertaining Classics for Pleasure.  

Bayard’s book is painted in a counterintuitive hue, another rub. He leans heavily on Oscar Wilde’s Artist as Critic and To Read or Not To Read, which evidently he’s digested a few times in preparation for this treatise on doing just the opposite—“anti” or “non” reading. My readers group, local Inklings of sorts, asked me, “Did you read the book before reviewing it?”

There’s a literary swagger in Bayard’s boast about non-reading, and references to various social exchanges that venerate crafty wordsmithing and psychoanalysis over careful reading. One illustration from David Lodge’s Changing Places includes the game “Humiliation” in which rivaling professors attempt to persuade others of books they haven’t read, often with details heard secondhand. The winner is the one telling the biggest lie and fooling the most.

Though a worthwhile read, the book fizzles as Bayard wades in the same relativistic waters tread by Stanley Fish. Bayard attempts to establish a case for our “inner books,” much akin to Fish’s “interpretive communities.” Books, according to Bayard, take on special meaning to each person, and the intended meaning remains unknowable to anyone. He argues that “we must profoundly transform our relationship to books,” and “accept a kind of evolution of our psychology.... what is essential is to speak about ourselves and not about books, or to speak about ourselves by way of books.” This quintessential existential approach can make a historian like me queasy, and rips the “non” out of “the law of non-contradiction.”

The climax of this suspect trajectory is Bayard’s claim that in the art of non-reading we become creators. The most important thing is that the books are about us, and this gives us the freedom to create our own text (see page 180).

This fun book with helpful observations goes awry here, offering what Jay McInerney calls a “nonreading utopia”—“a charming but ultimately terrifying prospect—a world full of writers and artists” (New York Times, 11 November 2007). Bayard’s model has us affixing gelatin manuscripts to a revolving Wittenberg Door without nails—or anything else that’s objectively real.  Though we begin with practical help for daunting reading expectations (his useful concepts of inner libraries and veneration of lit reviews), we end with theories more conflicting than those gems in Alan Sokal’s hoax (in Social Text, 1996). The only difference is that Sokal intended to write camouflaged nonsense littered with ideological jargon pleasing to reviewers.

While I recommend Bayard’s book, don’t be hoodwinked by his mythical author status. Unlike the unnamed narrator in The Bleak House, the first-person is not really Bayard—though his writing finesse creates a voice as believable as other fictional male protagonists like J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev. Bayard seems to be following Wilde’s literary mentoring, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (Intentions).

Another objection to Bayard’s thesis is his omission of the love of reading. It splits one’s dendrites to think (as Fish also seems to imply) that one can venerate the art of writing without studying it. While the usefulness of the humanities and the rationale for its place in college curricula is a debate for another time, the love of literature is not.

To miss Jane Austin’s defense of novels while describing Catherine and Isabella’s relationship forged in the details of Bath is to miss the author. To miss the hundreds of T. Harry William’s vignettes of the “wild man” days is to miss the magnetism of Huey Long, “a demagogue and a clown” who once answered the door naked and while drunk, convincing the foreign ambassador it was an American custom. To opt for Cliffs Notes or reviews of Dorian Gray is to miss a truth articulated about vanity and hubris, and Dorian’s constant tension of thinking about “the desecration that was in store for the fair face on the canvas.” Or the plea for sensibility by Basil Howard, Gray’s painter, to a hallow-souled Gray hours after the poisonous death of Gray’s lover (fittingly named, Sibyl Vane). The trajectory of Bayard’s “creator” thesis would evolve millions of Patroclus figures dying for reasons other than for an arrogant Achilles’ plight that for two millennia has resonated with the human condition. Likewise, in the nonreading scheme a secondhand Hamlet is stripped of its appeal and “My Queen” becomes platonic. And lesser gems lose all sense of place on the shelf, such as, Dubner’s Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper, with its vivid images of Franco Harris’s life-giving presence in everyday, nondescript Pittsburg.

Imagine the shallowness of Bayard’s cocktail party chatter about a Bible not firmly in their inner libraries, boasting the theme of Easter but unaware of the conversations on the cross, recounting parables’ points without understanding their purpose. And imagine churches led by preachers excelling in non-reading, vague passionless homilies from clerics that can place the Bible on the right shelf, but with little edification for the self as a whole. And for those imbibing his views of an inner book with changing meaning, meaningless sermons for changing times. 

There are many more important questions than “Who is Mark Noll?” But it’s in his Scandal where Christians find a well-reasoned challenge to return to their heritage of intellectual rigor, to contribute to the “first-order public discourse” and to cultivate scholarly attitudes with “the seriousness that God intends.” Establishing strong inner libraries is an important step in this direction, but in addition to and not in place of an aggressive reading schedule.

And if I’m right, reading in between and the lines themselves, I think that’s what Bayard is suggesting, though for a much less spiritual cause.


Jerry Pattengale serves as Assistant Provost for Scholarship & Public Engagement at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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