On the Virtues of Non-Reading?

I recently read wonderfully subversive little book. The book is Pierre Bayard‘s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and if you haven’t read it, might I humbly suggest that you ignore the title and do.  Bayard himself is a literature professor, and decidedly well-read (having written books about Balzac, Maupassant, Proust, Stendhal, among others), he surely cannot be telling us not to read.  So what is this book really about?

It is a book about learning how to live with books and coming to terms with our often mixed-feelings about them.  In short, he teaches us to realize that the many forms of “non-reading” that we engage in (books we’ve read but have forgotten, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about) do not instantly make us cultural philistines.  That despite the seeming “obligation to read,” and to “read thoroughly” that most of us feel, there are many other meaningful ways that to interact with the books around us.  Even through the various forms of non-reading that he discusses, those not-read books become a part of our “inner libraries” as much as the fully read and remembered ones, leaving a very real imprint on us.  He writes (the emphasis is his),

We are the sum of these accumulated books.

I was recently having a conversation about reading, particularly about what “important” or canonical works we have read or not read.  Proust inevitably was mentioned, and neither one of us had finished it, and although I can’t speak for both of us, I was embarrassed about it.  On some level, I felt I should have read it, all of it, at some point (I have never gotten past Swan’s Way, although I truly loved it).  Although neither one of us ran to pick up In Search of Lost Time, we both did begin to read the short stories of Anton Chekov, another author that we agreed that as well-educated and well-read people, we should read. That embarrassment felt a the moment of having to admit that I had not read all of Proust and Chekov is exactly the kind of guilt that Bayard is trying to assuage.

Bayard’s book also seems to address, and perhaps even critique, the significance of the reader as creator of meaning.  He exaggerates this concept by regularly reminding the reader that “the book is not a fixed object,” that it is “less the object than the consequence,” and that it is “less a book than it is the whole of the discussion of the book,”  he very nearly declares in a Nietzsche-like manner that the book is dead, and that we have killed it.  Our ideas about books have become more important than the books themselves, rendering them insignificant.  So insignificant that we don’t even have to read them to be able to discuss them.

That may be true, but I don’t think he entirely disagrees with the notions espoused by Eco in the work I blogged about yesterday, The Open Work.  In fact, they seem both seem to agree that at the end of the day, reading is not a simple, passive act by either author or reader.  It is a complicated dance, where both the reader and author are active participants. And by discussing the many ways in which we non-read, he ends up really writing about the infinitely complex ways that we do read.

Both Eco and Bayard appeared together on “Live from the New York Public Library” to discuss How to Talk About Books.  Eco’s The Name of the Rose appears in the chapter titled “Books You Have Heard Of: In which Umberto Eco shows that it is wholly unnecessary to have held a book in your hand to be able to speak about it, as long as you listen to and read what other say about it.”  Its a wonderful exchange between two very intelligent, and very funny, men.

Despite Mr. Bayard’s seeming challenge to not read his book, I am quite happy that I did, finding it incredibly provocative and enjoyable.  In the end, this little book about not reading reminded me just why I love to read in the first place.  I agree with Bayard, I am the sum of my accumulated books. From the books I’ve read and remember, to those I’ve read and have forgotten but left their imprint nonetheless, to those I’ve skimmed and yet absorbed, and even those I may have only heard about. My “inner library” defines me as does my physical library.  Even more so.

Aside:  I just received an email with one of the best subject lines possible “Your Amazon.com order of “The Prague Cemetery” has shipped!” 

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9 thoughts on “On the Virtues of Non-Reading?

  1. Great post. I enthusiastically read my way through “Swan’s Way” and “Time Regained”, but that’s it of Proust, and even yet, I feel like I can have an in-depth conversation on all of his works just having read the two and listened to people speak of the others. I suppose that is the way literature works, even for serious readers. There is only so much time in the day, and only so much we can possibly read (even if we spent every waking moment of our lives reading, we would still miss so much — depressing right?).

    I’ll have to add this book to my ever-growing list!

    • Thank you!

      I do suppose that its the way that literature works. A lot can be said about a book just from knowing its placement in a library. Physical, cultural, social, and literary contexts lend almost as much to our understanding of our books than the books themselves.

      And yes, do read it, its a surprisingly thought-provoking little book.

  2. I feel as if I’m still your student, except this time I do the work voluntarily. I’m beginning to become a fierce annotator. I also started a list of all your suggestions.

  3. Pingback: Forbidden Fruit or Food for Thought? | Intelligent Life

  4. I have ordered the book. I’m interested in his take. I read slowly, taking in content and style. So I don’t get through books very quickly. I have shelves full of books, probably half waiting to be read. And I keep on collecting! I guess I need some pointers on how to talk about those I haven’t read but know what their about….

    • Nothing wrong with having shelves full of un-read books!

      You’ll enjoy the book… its difficult not to. He has a very easy style yet there is nothing “simple” about the book. Let me know what you think once you’ve read it.

  5. Pingback: Umberto Eco: “How school teaches us not read books” « BLT

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