Why reading is not fundamental
A professor of literature extols the virtues of nonreading
I must admit that I hadn’t read more than a few sentences of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read before I found myself thinking, “There’s no way he really believes this.” After all, how likely is it that a French intellectual (psychoanalyst and professor of French literature at the Sorbonne) is going to publicly suggest that too much reading may not be good for you?
And that there is a certain virtue to nonreading? And yet that’s exactly the way that Bayard begins his trim little treatise (which is, by the way, laced with references to literature).
And so I certainly felt wary as I inched into the preface. “We still live in a society, on the decline though it may be,” notes Bayard, “where reading remains the object of a kind of worship.” It is to break through this mind set, Bayard explains, that “throughout this book, I will insist on the risks of reading – so frequently underestimated – for anyone who intends to talk about books, and even more so for those who plan to review them.”
Okay, so he’s being clever, I figured. He’s French after all, and probably very comfortable with irony. And he has certainly read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in which the wily Mark Anthony announces, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” and then does quite the opposite.
But no, long before I reached the epilogue I realized that Bayard is quite serious. (And if he’s ever read “Julius Caesar” he’s certainly not going to brag about it.)
Too much reading – and too untempered a respect for the literary canon – is neither a good nor a necessary thing, Bayard insists, and he quotes some impressive literary sources in defense of this thesis. Among the reasons for not reading: there are too many books and serious readers tend to lose the forest for the trees (a notion suggested by Austrian novelist Robert Musil), there’s no reason you can’t comment on a book you’ve simply skimmed (from French poet Paul Valéry), and even if you have read a book you may well have forgotten most of it (French essayist Montaigne).
Bayard also offers some practical tips of his own (“There is only one sensible piece of advice to give to those who find themselves having to talk to an author about one of his books without having read it: praise it without going into detail”) and wrings a bit of wisdom from pop culture along the way (the film “Groundhog Day” is examined as “the ideal way to seduce someone by speaking about books he or she loves without having read them yourself”.)
But it was only in the epilogue that Bayard finally convinced me of the serious nature of his intentions. It’s all about creativity, he explains. Readers who worship too intensely at the altar of other people’s books will probably never write their own – or even have a truly original reaction to someone else’s work. “The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage,” he explains. “It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in – a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of some part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.”
Now only a man who truly loves to read could have written something like that.