Mr Pierre Bayard's book should give relief to book lovers who have a feeling of guilt for not having read Proust, yet (or Petrus for wine lovers). For fear that people are carrying this too far, book reviewer Joseph Epstein reminds us that before you are acquitted, you need to have "acquired a reasonable amount of culture".
All the Wisdom, Without the Words
By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
November 2, 2007; Page W6
"I never read a book I must review," said Oscar Wilde, "it prejudices you so." Pierre Bayard, who avails himself of this quotation, would surely have understood my not reading his book, since he, too, as his title makes plain, feels that reading a book is no requirement for discussing it.
I went ahead and read Mr. Bayard's book anyway, chiefly because I am being paid to write about it, and I prefer to think myself an honest workman. Over the years I have read a number of books that, had I not been paid to write about them, I would never have allowed in the house. Joseph Heller's "Something Happened" (nothing, by the way, did) is one such book; another is "Ancient Evenings" by Norman Mailer, who may have written this long novel, though it is hard to believe that he could have read it and still allowed it to be published. I probably shouldn't bring any of this up, but Mr. Bayard holds that one of the best reasons for reading a book is that it allows you to talk about yourself.
"How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read" is an amusing disquisition on what is required to establish cultural literacy in a comfortable way. Lightly laced with irony, the book nonetheless raises such serious questions as: What are our true motives for reading? Is there an objective way to read a book? What do we retain from the books we've read?
Mr. Bayard, a professor of literature in Paris and a practicing psychoanalyst, relieves his readers of any self-reproach they might feel about not having read all the books they are supposed to have read. "Only in accepting our non-reading without shame," he writes, "can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence."
The Perfect Lover
Although he doesn't say so straight out, Mr. Bayard does suggest that the well-read man or woman, like the perfect lover, doesn't really exist. Some of us have read more books than others, but everyone has failed to read something of significance. Not to worry, Mr. Bayard counsels. Just because one hasn't read a book doesn't mean that one cannot talk about it with the same confidence as someone who has, and perhaps with greater acumen, not having to get bogged down in messy details.
Mr. Bayard doesn't mention Samuel Johnson, who claimed rarely to have finished a book. Such were the powers of extrapolation of my friend Edward Shils, the eminent sociologist, that he could read a few paragraphs in a book and tell you what the author's politics were and whether his parents ate in their dining room or kitchen. Mr. Bayard says that he has never read "Ulysses," which hasn't kept him from confidently discussing the book in his classrooms.
People with the most impressive claims to literary culture have failed to read books that are thought to be essential to the cultured person. Paul Valéry, the great French poet, never read Proust, though he wrote about him. Montaigne claimed to have forgotten not only much of what he read but also a good deal of what he himself wrote. I myself not so long ago re-read Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" — because I could remember so little from my first reading — and yet I still cannot tell you anything about its plot. Of most books, we retain shards. From Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge," I chiefly remember that the book's hero one afternoon sat in a chair in his club and read the whole of William James's "Principles of Psychology" in a single sitting. What, I wonder, did he remember from it?
Mr. Bayard argues that the gaps in our reading shouldn't distress us. His thesis helps one own up to the fact that there are many books that one is supposed to admire but cannot. My own list would include "Lolita," Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities," the novels of Hermann Broch, most of Walter Benjamin, all of Günter Grass. Then there are those writers who seem to have existed less to be read than to have had Susan Sontag write essays about them: Roland Barthes, W.G. Sebald, Michel Leiris. To the not reading of books, to reverse Ecclesiastes, there is no end.
As Mr. Bayard notes, one doesn't always have to read a book to grasp its value. If certain critics, for instance, are enthusiastic about a book, that is all I need to know. I cannot count how much time the ecstatic endorsement of books on the part of John Leonard, by instantly putting me off reading them, has saved me over the years. Authors, like restaurants, should perhaps be given a second but not a third chance. Having read one or two books by a writer who disappoints, need one really read more?
"It should be the most normal of behaviors," Mr. Bayard writes, "to acknowledge that we haven't read a book while nevertheless reserving the right to pass judgment on it." He speaks of "aggressive" nonreading, which has been my relation to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," her best- selling book about the death of her husband, a work I would as lief cut off both my thumbs than read. I recently assured two troubled widows who were reading the book not to let it throw them, since the emotion in it was likely to be more literary than real.
Discuss a book with someone else, Mr. Bayard notes, and you are almost certain to undergo the disillusionment that "arises from the discovery of the unfathomable distance that separates us from others," so different are the things that people extract from books. Too true, and further evidence that we take from books what we need and leave behind the rest. Along the same line, Mr. Bayard devotes a chapter to the disappointment authors feel when readers who praise their books reveal how ignorant they are of them. I have myself been praised for stories and essays I've never even written; it seemed good manners modestly to accept the praise.
The only escape from the prison-house of culture, it turns out, is to arrive at a condition in which one does not care if other people think one is cultured or not. "Truth destined for others," Mr. Bayard writes, "is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something obtainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultured, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves." A just and true statement. The only problem is that one has to have read a great many books, and to have acquired a reasonable amount of culture, before one knows how true it is.
Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of "In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary and Savage" (Houghton Mifflin).