To Read Or To Non-Read: On Pierre Bayard

Again, returning to the subject of Pierre Bayard’s book – How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – I must say that this is ironically the only book I’ve read with such interest in some months, but then again did I really read it? Bayard’s playful title and amusing chapter headings predispose one to believe that the book is going to be some smart ass and sarcastic diatribe against reading which will turn out (down deep) to be a celebration of reading.  In fact, the book does exactly what it promises in the very title, that is, explain how it is possible to talk about books one has not read. Of course, and here’s the trick, it also challenges some general assumptions about the nature of reading and the value of reading, and it does so in a very matter-of-factly way of asking very simple questions like: Does it really count as a “read” book if you’ve read the book but then forgot parts or all of it? For example, in philosophical circles one assumes that everyone “read” Plato, even if a specific dialogue is difficult to recall for a non-specialist, we all “know” what Plato is about and all, the problem, however, if it is a real problem (and it is not for Bayard), is that we talk about Plato as “readers” of Plato when in fact we actually do not remember much of Plato’s texts but only secondary references to them, references of various kinds such as other people’s lectures, our own vague memories, certain “important” sections etc etc. Reading, argues Bayard, turns out to be a kind of creative non-reading where even the books we’ve read from cover to cover (and how often does that happen, I ask) are not really “read” because by “reading” we generally mean a process of familiarizing oneself with the content of a specific book. Non-reading is a way to engage books, says Bayard, that, if one listens to Oscar Wilde, is as important as so-called “reading” – in fact, Wilde’s suggestion that one does not spend more than 10 mins with a book is a guiding principle throughout…

One reviewer (The Guardian) claims that “Bayard’s approach is Derridean: a focus on the relation between objects and the systems that support these. He perceives books themselves as a ‘system’, important only in so far as they are received within society: the gossip that they generate; the ideas that they spawn; the conflicts that they provoke. ‘Relations among ideas are far more important than the ideas themselves,’ he insists.” I’m not so sure about that. Bayard seems to be as far away from any kind of Derridean approach as possible: all he does is actually look at the academic culture of the cult of reading (expressed both in requirement to read in class and the appreciation of being “well-read”) and conclude that it’s not the reading of books itself, but how this reading is situated in a system of academic signs that really matters. If the purpose of reading is to generate discussion (in the class or in the circle of colleagues), then if non-reading serves this purpose much better than “faithful” reading, we must go with non-reading.  To fetishize reading is to produce a culture of veiled ignorance where the main secret is the wide-spread practice of non-reading and superficiality that is judged to be unacceptable on the surface of things but that is also acceptable in a kind of academic conspiracy.

Bayard’s examples are mainly literary, but if one were to take the issue with some of the philosophical reading that is taking place both in our midst and in our classrooms, I think many of the examples would ring true as well. With all that stuff about referential systems that are the “classical” philosophical texts out of the consideration for a moment, one might wonder what constitutes a good philosophical reader? Strangely enough, once you think about it, you realize that it must the kind of person who reads less (or takes less time to read) yet is able to quickly grasp the meaning and the direction of the book and make certain connections, i.e. the ideal philosophical reading, especially with the amount of secondary literature on any subject, is a kind of quick scan that allows one to distribute the reading effort accordingly and this way “read” more. Think about it: consider an example – you are “reading” Kant’s first Critique (maybe again, maybe for the first time – for whatever reason), it is very likely that

a) you will be reading a section of it, and not “the whole thing”
b) you will be paying attention only to those paragraphs that interest you in this particular reading act (say you were trying to clarify some issues concerning Kant’s treatment of psychological transcendental idea of self)
c) you will likely stop reading once you “found” what you were looking for
d) you will most likely continue reading about this particular problem elsewhere
e) this “elsewhere” will be a huge sea of secondary lit so you will use you acquired skill of either reading the “established” authors (“the experts”) or scanning through 10-20 books on Kant at the library
f) this scanning will most likely take a form of reading tables of content, indexes, introductions etc etc
g) you will stop this process once you’ve arrived at a more or less useful understanding of the issue and you move on to other things…

Clearly, I think, none of these steps are considered to be actual “reading of Critique of Pure Reason” – but that is mostly likely what most of us would do (constraints of time being one reason, habit being another). Now, one doesn’t have to take Bayard’s book too literally – he does not give you helpful tips on how to avoid reading at all, yet his presentation of the problem is very thought-provoking, especially if we are all open and honest with ourselves (at least) about the difference between the number of books we’ve read and the number of books we’ve claimed to have read or would like to believe we’ve read…

3 thoughts on “To Read Or To Non-Read: On Pierre Bayard

  1. I enjoyed this book too. As for your disagreement with the Guardian reviewer, well, yes and no. It’s not much of a Derridean book in the angle you describe above. Certainly, much of our time is spent “non-reading” in the way you describe, e.g. we skim an article, or the start and end of an article and connect the dots, and subsequently place it into some sort of pre-existing taxonomy. Sometimes we don’t read a book, but talk about it as if we did because we go on what the author’s prior position is and maybe we even skim the introduction or preface. However, towards the end of the book Bayard starts suggesting that non-reading (talking about books we haven’t read) is a form of creative, even artistic activity. This, along with some of the more psychoanalytic musings about freeing us from the shame of not reading something, or as you put it above, releasing ourselves from the festishizing of the book, does seem close to some things Derrida has written about troubling the binary of reader-writer, different notions of text etc .

  2. I agree, I think my reaction to the adjective “Derridean” was mainly directed at its somewhat vulgar sense – the way people talk about “deconstructing” something instead of “analyzing” it – I think the Guardian review meant that it was Derridean in a kind of challenging stereotypes or being playing ways – which it is, but I don’t know what’s so strictly Derridean about it. I am sort of waiting for the word “Derridean” to make its way into the popular vocabulary – wouldn’t it be cool? Imagine young mothers talking: “Yes, Jimmy’s been very Derridean lately, constant double entendres and wordplays, not sure where he’s going with any of the sentences that he begins and then just sort of mulls around without much progress, and his catchy phrases are becoming more and more weird like – Playing is the sandbox of justice and stuff…”

  3. I know, the appearance of “Derridean” as a schlocky catch-all for “challenging” or “putting into question” is annoying, but if I had a kid I’d just love to say, “Mikhail, I don’t know what’s with little Shahar (oops we don’t do that, let’s just say little Mikhail), he’s just so damn Derridean lately, what can we do?”

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