How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?

This summer, I have read with a great pleasure a short book (in French) translated into “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read ?”, by Pierre Bayard, professor of French literature at the University of Paris Sorbonne. The book was mentioned on http://www.brainpickings.org/ and on http://www.nytimes.com/ (and can be found in French online). The book is great… and I have identified a lot of things that can be observed if you work as an academic. Not only in literature.

The book starts with Oscar Wilde’s famous quote “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so”. So obviously, there should be good reasons not to read books. But first, Pierre Bayard suggests to distinguish among books that you “haven’t read“.

The first illustration is based on the librarian in Robert Musil‘s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Good librarian do not read ! More precisely “The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the title and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian…He’s bound to lose perspective.” You should not read books if you want a good perspective. Further, “We marched down the ranks in that colossal storehouse of books, and I don’t mind telling you I was not particularly overwhelmed […]. Still, after a while I couldn’t help starting to do some figuring in my head, and I got an unexpected answer. […] I had been thinking that if I read a book a day […] I could claim a certain position in the world of the intellect. […] But what do you suppose that librarian said to me as […] I asked him how many books they had in this crazy library ? ‘Three and a half million’ he tells me. It would take me ten thousand years to carry out my plan.” There are so many books that it is clearly impossible to read everything. But this was mentioned earlier, in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 12:12, “the writing of many books is endless“. Actually, we have the same problem with academic research: there are papers published everyday, so as for Musil’s librarian, there is no way to read all of them. So clearly, if we want an overview of a given scientific field, we just go through titles, and abstracts (if we have time)…

As a second illustration, Pierre Bayard mentions the poet Paul Valéry who claimed that “je demeure peu lecteur, car je ne recherche dans un ouvrage que ce qui peut permettre ou interdire quelque chose à ma propre activité”. Similarly in academic research, we read mainly because we have to be sure that what we do is new, and has not be done before.

Then Pierre Bayard mention books that we have just heard of. And to illustrate this point, he mentions Umberto Ecco‘s Il nome della rosa. If you remember the book (or the movie), Baskerville finds the truth not because he has read a copy of the book, but he has heard of it. And it is clearly enough ! “Gradually this second book took shape in my mind as it had to be. I could tell you almost all of it, without reading the pages that were meant to poison me“. And trust me, academics do that all the time ! Because there are books you are supposed to mentioned when you want to publish. But some of them are out of print, and cannot be found in your library, and are way to expensive to buy them. So you just listen to what people say about that book.

So now we know that it is not necessary to read book when talk about them. But still, you have to behave properly if you still want to be reliable. The example mentioned by Pierre Bayard is the Martins-Dexter quiproquo in Graham Greene’s The third man. “‘If you want to know, I’ve never heard of him. What did he write?’ He didn’t realize it, but he was making an enormous impression. Only a great writer could have taken so arrogant, so original“. A similar story can be found in David Lodge’s Campus trilogy, when professors have to confess that they have not read certain books (in the so-called humiliation game), and the head of the literature department admits that he has never read Hamlet. It is rather difficult to admit that you have not read a book.

But similarly, the question “have you read the article ?” is usually quite ambiguous. Pretending that you have read it can mean that you have fully understood the paper, and the proof, and the implication. So usually, I do not pretend that I have read an article. Perhaps I might say that I had time to go through it. But not much more…

More funny is Pierre Siniac’s Ferdinaud Céline, where the author does not know the book he thought he wrote. It looks like funny, but I have to admit that this is a felling I have also experienced ! When people mention your work, or talk about it, but not the way you expected it. Like when you develop a nice theory, and you propose an application at the end, but some people only remember the 12% difference you have with the benchmark model, while the goal of the paper was simply to propose a new method, based on something else you’ve been working on. The article people read is usually not the one you wrote. Especially after a few revisions, where referees have required many changes (and you’ve done them because you need that publication).

Anyway, “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read ?” by Pierre Bayard is a great book that should be read by everyone !


5 thoughts on “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?”

  1. yes I have, twice (once for my pleasure, once for the post). Actually, I do read a lot… but mainly for own my pleasure. A few years ago, I was in a novel jury (the “Jury du Livre Inter” see http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prix_d…), and I had to read 10 books from a list (and to read all of them). That was tough. But a great experience.

  2. Your article reminds me some readings. I’m thinking especially of the article of Akerlof about the market for lemons and Arrow’s Social choice and individual values. I heard a lot about them so when I started reading them I thought I would find some great new stuff. Indeed I discovered nothing new. I already knew quite everything inside them. Everything was in other’s papers.

    To be true, that disappointed me a bit.

    (I am french so I hope my english is not too bad)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *