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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard 
1st-Jan-2008 11:58 pm
Bayard, Pierre. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007.
          Summary: Originally titled Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? In this clever little volume of textual analysis, literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard argues that being widely read is far less important than we generally think it is. Rather, books are important for the ways in which they assist in larger communicative and creative human processes--often without our having actually read them at all.
          Comments: I know, I know...it's a really catchy title. But if you're looking for a crash course in highbrow bullshit artistry, you're going to be sorely disappointed. The book really ought to be called, "Why You Can Talk About Books You Haven't Read (And Should!)." For Bayard's capstone conceit, after discussing "books you've heard about" and "books you've skimmed" with, in my opinion, somewhat less persuasive power, is that actual reading is impossible: Reading is not so much a process of fixing words in our minds as it is a process of forgetting almost instantaneously; all that remains is a vague impression of a book filtered through and altered by our own biases that has next to nothing in common with what the book actually is. Thus, since you can acquire various opinions about books without having allowed sentences to pass before your eyes at all, when we talk about books, we are always talking about books we haven't read. So why bother "reading" at all?
          The astute amongst us will have noted by now that this is yet another book that is actually talking about the reception of media (I seem to be reading a lot of those lately, and that's somewhat coincidental); Bayard's thesis is all about mediated communication and its pitfalls. For him, books are a conduit, albeit a fundamentally imperfectible one, between the mind of writer and reader, between society/collective culture and the individual. But unlike Thompson (The Media and Modernity) or Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies), Bayard does not believe unreservedly that books open up new vistas of possibility for "self-formation" and personal growth. Bayard, conversely, is profoundly suspicious of outside influences. For him, the self is a fortress that must be defended from too many outside influences, and he argues that books should be received only inasmuch as they assist in creative processes unique to the individual. In other words, he doesn't want to see your identity subsumed and/or consumed by a mediocre book.
          What a snarky, paternalistic attitude! I am, as I noted earlier, agnostic about the processes of the reception of media, so I prefer to evaluate his arguments more aesthetically than scientifically. Definitely liked the idiosyncratic terminology he developed, for example. Yet I can't help wondering if the difference in the conclusions about reception between Bayard and Thompson/Birkerts is somehow representative of differences between French and Anglo-American cultures. French people, at least stereotypically, are obsessed with the preservation of the purity of their language and culture, whereas Americans especially are stereotypically ever-eager to adopt the latest trend or idiom. I guess it just goes to show how much truth claims might be culturally specific or inflected. Although, if I had the guts (which I don't), I'd adopt his system of abbreviations for my own reviews--it's pretty darn cool.
          Notes: hardcover, 1st American edition; first published in France by Les Editions de Minuit in 2007
          Rating: 6.5/10 - Entertaining and potentially thought-provoking treatise on reception of books (and media) in an easily-digestible form. Bravo.
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