How To Talk About Books We Have Not Read

By Ian R Thorpe

So many books, so little time

One of the criticisms levelled at my articles about books by commenters on the web is that I do not know how to write a proper review. The web attracts every kind of pedant under the sun however and what my critics mean is I do not frame my comments about books I’ve read as one would if submitting a high school homework assignment. I like to think my readers are grown ups and don’t need me to demonstrate an understanding of the niceties of style and grammar, narrative structure and character creation techniques. They want to know if they might enjoy a certain book or what ideas and themes they might find in it. People who do comment on my writing as if they are a teacher grading it usually get a very rude but grammatically and syntactically correct response. A book that told me by it’s title I had to post an article on it was How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Now if an English writer had written this, it might have been titled “The Art Of Talking Bollocks”. Bollocks is not a word that has much currency in the U.S.A. so I can use it with impunity even though it is a slightly rude, reference to men’s dangly bits. The word means literally “small balls” and in modern usage refers to the aforementioned components of the
The Dog's Bollocks

male anatomy. Although religious types may deem any mention of the human body parts between the navel

and knee socially unacceptable, the first recorded use of the word bollocks is

ecclesiastical. One of King Henry 1st’s spies, sent to Canterbury to get the dirt on Thomas a Becket noted in a report to the king, “The Dean and Chapter walked past chanting plainsong and playing with their bollocks.” Without doubt he was referring to rosary beads. Bollocks is usually used colloquially to describe something that fails to meet expectations, as in “That novel was a load of bollocks,” or “I don’t listen to politicians, they all talk bollocks. A meal that is bollocks is on the inedible side of mediocre. On the other hand, something that is “the dogs bollocks” is surpassing good. The American mindset tends to take things more literally that that of most Europeans, especially British and French minds, both of which are equally open to the ideas of existentialism and fascinated with wordplay and irony, thus the idea of talking about books we have not read might seem, to an American reader, quite nonsensical while a European would see a lot of potentially interesting possibilities in it. Before reviewing How To Talk About Books We Have Not Read by Pierre Bayard, a French Literary Academic, I must first explain the wholly British concept of talking bollocks (it is only British in that the French have their own name for it.) to help readers understand the concept. As well as referring to someone who talks through the hole in their bottom, “talking bollocks” also describes a peculiarly Celtic and Anglo Saxon art form art form. In Ireland this art of having a free flowing, desultory and not entirely serious conversation is also known as “Craic”. For those who take life too seriously, craic or talking bollocks is a wonderfully entertaining way of passing an evening. Talking about books in an intellectual way is an aspect of this art, in fact I have a degree in talking bollocks about books, a.k.a. English Literature. We have all at times told porkies (abbrev. Pork Pies, rhyming slang for lies) about reading, claiming to have read books we have not so much as opened and in some cases not even read the blurb on the dust cover. Usually this is done to impress somebody, a colleague or someone we
An honest pork pie

fancy. I wonder how many red blooded men (and maybe a few women) in have claimed to have read everything Oscar Wilde or the French Romantic poets ever wrote to impress a certain somebody with whom they wanted to spend quality time. Pierre Bayard acknowledges that his interest in Talking About Books He Has Not Read is professional, as an academic and teacher in a University he is often required to comment on books he has not read. There are far too many books existing in any major language for one person to have read them all. This led Bayard to understand there is a difference between simple absence of reading and the act of not reading as a cultural activity. The distinction the author makes is perhaps more noticeable in France where intellectualism is still prized, than in the English speaking world where dumbing down and rampant consumerism have conspired to turn bookish people into distrusted outsiders in our materialistic, property owning democratic societies. “Not Reading” as opposed to simply not reading is more complex than simple laziness or lack of interest in the life of the mind; it implies a deep interest in books and literature. The true reader, the book claims, is someone who loves to reflect on literature and to hold an opinion on the ideas that are the essence of any book. In this the author is thinking along the same lines as Oscar Wilde who believed the critic relies neither on author or text. Wilde was proposing the idea that a reader must be creative, must engage with the text in order to interpret it in a personally meaningful way and therefore must become a part of the creative process as is the writer. To read it is necessary to interpret and to interpret is to write. Wilde would certainly not have felt his not having read a book constrained his right to express an opinion. The central theme of Talking about Books We Have Not Read stems from the philosophical writing of existentialist philosopher Jaques Derrida. Derrida says text focuses on objects and the systems that support them. Here books are these supporting systems, only important in society in that they are the vehicles for ideas; their real importance to society lies in the conversations they generate and the exchange of ideas that take place in those conversations. “Relations between ideas are much more important than the ideas themselves,”

Bayard asserts. To put this in perspective we need to reflect on how subjective our interpretations of the events in daily life are and compare that with the subjectivity of our interpretations of the books we read. Is it the case then that Bayard and Derrida were supporting solipsism, the idea that an individual’s mind is the only thing that person can truly know exists? Do we all live in a private universe of our own creation? Not quite.

Jerrida talking bollocks with a colleague.

The value of solipsism is put into perspective by two founders of the existentialist way of thinking. David Hume said “There are no great, universal truths, each man’s perceptions are uniquely his own” – they did not go in for inclusive nouns in Hume’s era – while Immanuel Kant said “Objects exist in reality but only a human mind can surround them with time and space.” We share a reality then but each perceive it in slightly different, subjective ways. In illustrating his point, Prof. Bayard repeatedly misrepresents vital plot elements in books by Umberto Eco, John Updike, Graham Greene and others. If challenged, he informs us, he will simply say that he was telling a subjective truth. Culture, he tells us, is ‘a theatre charged with concealing individual ignorance’. In that joke Bayard sums up the tone of his work, it is playful and tongue in cheek, as if he has played a deliciously naughty trick on more serious minded intellectuals. It is in fact a perfect example of Talking Bollocks although to qualify as

craic it would need others involved in the conversation while a book is essentially a dialogue between the words of the author and the mind of the reader. He could be right, but what price would we pay for tearing down that theatre. Are we already paying that price as we bulldoze cultural centres to make way for shopping malls and other Temples of Mammon. How To Talk About Books You Have Not Read has a deliciously French feel to it, indeed it could probably only have been written by a French author. The tone is witty and thought provoking but underlying all the intellectual trickery is a serious point, “We must transform our relationship with books and with ideas.” Often however, when the word “book” appears in the text it could easily be substituted by “experience” and to prove he is not a charlatan the writer offers insightful analysis of writers such as Proust, Balzac and Shakespeare as well as a critique of Groundhog Day. Though prone to complicate the obvious he should never be taken at face value, Pierre Bayard is truly multi layered. But of course that is my subjective interpretation of the book. You must judge for yourselves. How To Talk About Books We Haven’t Read is well worth a read. (True to the spirit of Pierre Bayard’s book Ian reviewed it without having read it.).

An impressionists view of people talking about books they have not read in Montmartre

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