Monday, March 17, 2008

How to talk about books you haven't read

In this article, I would like to talk about a book I have never read. Strangely, though, I feel justified in doing so, since the book is entitled How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read – it was written by French academic Pierre Bayard.

The book, which I have read about second-hand, is a bestseller in France. In the book, the author, apparently, admits that there are many books he talks about that he has not read. In fact, he says he has given lectures on books he has skimmed.

Bayard’s book is, allegedly, filled with invaluable advice. To talk about a book you have not read, Bayard reckons, you should avoid precise details, put rational thought aside and let your subconscious express your personal relationship with the work.

Bayard claims his coming clean is part of an attempt to break down the pretension that surrounds reading and makes nonreaders feel less guilty. It would seem that Bayard has a point, or has at least hit on something, given the sales of his book.

Then again, perhaps, people are buying Bayard’s book, not in support of his general thesis, but because they would like to join the pompous book-loving sect. They see Bayard’s book as a self-help guide to faking erudite literacy.

Either way, this tells us something – for some reason, books have become mystical. They represent something beyond what they themselves are – mediums for transmitting information. They are rated higher than film, documentary or a good lecture. They are seen as a cornerstone of civilisation.

It is largely true that knowledge, so-called progress and the written word are entwined. But is it not possible that the veneration we attach to books is the exact reason children are put off reading? Is bookish snobbery not one of the reasons those who struggle with reading often end up in a declining self-esteem cycle, which results in their avoiding books rather than trying to overcome their difficulties?

About one-million new books are published each year, and a book is published every 30 seconds, according to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books. This suggests that it is not possible to read all books and that many are rubbish. This links to one explanation for the pretension about books. The well read take it upon themselves to distinguish the good from the bad. Sadly, however, reviewing books has become an elitist sport.

Bayard suggests that, when it comes to reviewing a book, put the book in front of you, close your eyes and try to perceive what may interest you about it. Then write about yourself.

His advice is frivolous, but I like the idea of using books as a platform for imagination and to learn more about one another. Because there are so many books in the world, reading is, by its nature, selective. So we should celebrate the fact that we have not all read the same books. We should spend less time seeking the ‘must read’ book of the year and eulogising about it, and more time in imaginative conversation with one another, learning about what we have not read and what else tickles our respective fancies. As Bayard notes, “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 31 August 2007.