A book just waiting to be written: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?, by Pierre Bayard. This French author’s previous book, Who killed Roger Ackroyd, was an examination of Agatha Christie’s crime novels. Now, he’s written a book on talking about the must-read book, even if you haven’t read it, thus removing any opportunity to be embarrassed in an important social setting. Bah, spoilsport. The practice of exposing a fraud is immensely satisfying, if only to prove to oneself how extremely well read one is, and to even attempt to dilute this experience is rather perverse of Bayard.
Most of us, of course, if we are honest at least with ourselves, claim to have read many more books than we actually have. Life expectancy may have gone up considerably since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, but it is still not long enough to have actually read it. Bayard makes the point that it is possible to have an informed literary opinion of a book without having read it cover to cover. It takes little more than one page to determine an author’s writing style, after all. Certainly enough to gather whether or not one needs to bother with the rest of it.
The core of Bayard’s thesis is that there is no obligation to read, and that his book will help free people of the psychological guilt of not having read, say, Remembrance of Things Past or Middlemarch. According to Bayard, ambiguity is the key when talking about things one doesn’t know in detail. A reader’s “personal relationship” should come through when talking about the book. A confession here. Bayard’s book is only available in French. I don’t speak that language. But Bayard can hardly fault me for not reading his book, can he? Even his publishers understand the inherent paradox in his book. So is it smarter to read it, or not? That, fellow bibliophiles, is the big question.