As you all know, I’m an anxious reader who worries about what he’s reading and what he hasn’t read yet. The thing is, I honestly believe that our best books can have a profound effect on our lives and on society. How profound? Somewhere between the quixotic enlightenment dreams of a perfect society and the corny water-lady dreams of M. Night Shyamalan – somewhere in the realm of “not-crazy” but not exactly normal either.
This anxiety leaves me with a long list of books that I have never read that I consider desperately important. Yet one thing I have never done is pretend I’ve read any of them if I haven’t. In fact, I will gleefully tell you I haven’t. I may even consider it a sign of respect towards the author that I’ve systematically ignored their work over the years. Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, all of you have my deepest respect.
That’s why the fascination with Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read cracks me up. Bayard is a French literature professor who has admitted to lecturing on books he hasn’t read. Oh dear. Next we’ll have history professors lecturing on events they haven’t lived through.
I suppose, though, it’s brave, uneducated fools like myself who are the target market for this book. From The Harvard Crimson:
Bayard is attempting to alleviate their guilt and give them the tools to avoid feeling excluded from the book-reading community.
While I’m skeptical of the logic of a book that argues against reading, Bayard is onto something. Why do we feel the need to fake it in casual conversation? The idea that there is a canon of great literature that one must read in order to be cultured is daunting and unrealistic.
Bayard provides a number of tips for talking about the canon without reading it: generalize about the author, use the book to talk about your personal experiences, or (a devastatingly original move) try to change the subject. But I can’t escape the feeling that somewhere here is a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode waiting to happen.
Here’s how I talk about books I haven’t read: Is it a good read? Where can I get it?