Unless they’re related to work, my reading habits seldom follow a particular plan. The selection of a book from the teetering piles of unread matter is down to chance, mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, travel plans, even the weather (or more specifically the shape and size of the pockets of the outer garments I might be wearing at the time).
Sometimes there’s a happy congruence between two successive books: if you pick out a Martin Amis, does this raise the chances of your next selection being an Ian McEwan? But it’s rarer that coincidence brings together two books that appear to contradict each other directly. Even if, after deeper analysis, they turn out not to.
On the face of it at least, Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read does what it says on the cover. Bayard not only acknowledges the guilty secret that many who inhabit academic and literary circles haven’t actually read Ulysses/A Brief History of Time/anything; he even identifies such a state not as an omission, but as a commission, and a positive one at that:
If many cultivated individuals are non-readers, and if, conversely, many non-readers are cultivated individuals, it is because non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be protected and even taught.Bayard’s thesis is based on the fact that any text is inextricably linked to the cultural context in which it exists; in this sense, his notion of non-reading can be seen as the logical end of Barthes’s Death of the Author (apologies to long-standing readers who’ve been subjected to this several times before). Just as the writer gives up any special authority over a text the moment it is read, so the reader gives up any claim to authority once the text becomes part of a broader culture. We need neither to write nor to read a book in order to own it; which must allow Katie Price to sleep more easily.
There does remain the question of whether Bayard is entirely serious. An air of mischievous irony hangs over the slim volume; and the breadth of references (Balzac; Proust; Musil; Wilde; Soseki; David Lodge; The Third Man; Groundhog Day) suggests that the author’s been reading a little more deeply than he affects to let on. Which in turn discourages the casual (non-?) reader, by framing a whimsical jape in the forbidding context of proper literary criticism.
Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, by contrast, couches a serious point in the context of whimsy. It’s a brief story about the Queen, who becomes an avid reader late in life; this change disturbs her advisors at Court and in government, who find the monarch becoming less malleable and reliable as a result of her literary explorations, and also begin to feel insecure about their own cultural aridity. Almost in passing, she expresses the point of reading a book, as distinct from being aware of its contents:
“Of course,” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”Which in turn makes me think of Cliffs Notes and similar products that claim to offer us the benefit of reading without actually, y’know reading. I’m not sure whether there’s an equivalent of Cliffs in Bayard’s native France, but I was half expecting a passing reference to them in his book. That said, raising the existence of such non-reading guides might have alerted us to the fact that he’s taking the piss, by implicitly acknowledging the point made by Bennett’s Queen: that it’s not the content of a book that’s important, but the process by which the reader engages with that content.
Not that you need to read this post to know that, of course.