HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ BY PIERRE BAYARD

April 1st, 2008 at 3:26 pm

You know this book was written by a Frenchie when on page xiv, the author asserts that, “We still live in a society, on the decline though it may be, where reading remains the object of a kind of worship.”

Whaaa??????

Yeah, reading People Magazine.

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No, on this side of the pond we’re in The American Age of Unreason, Pierre. Books are hardly considered a sacred deity worthy of worship. Unless it’s a diet book, or a trashy romance novel, or one deemed commendable by Oprah. Then it can be worshiped. And only then.

Bayard’s work is an uber meta-book, a love letter to books and criticism, a concise praise of artistic creation, books, and critical endeavor. Its only shortcoming is that it does not go far enough. I would have loved to see Bayard’s argument, that a book’s placement in the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment is really all that matters, be applied to other mediums, forms of entertainment, and cultural manifestations like movies, restaurants, and pop culture.

Because Bayard’s arguments are sound. His reasoning so remarkably convincing and refined that an application to other arenas of modern life would have provided us with a refreshing and interesting perspective on how to approach politics, religion, and the infinite modes we encounter in our modern lives. Though Bayard does come close, spending an entire chapter providing a most impressive and serious critical analysis of the movie Groundhog Day.

But unfortunately Bayard sticks to books, insisting that, “For a true reader, one who cares about being able to reflect on literature, it is not any specific book that counts, but the totality of all books. Paying exclusive attention to an individual volume causes us to risk losing sight of that totality, as well as the qualities in each book that figure in the larger scheme…we must guard against getting lost in any individual passage, for it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.”

Bayard goes further: “For there is no such thing as an isolated book. A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements.”

Bayard even demands that, “It should be the most normal of behaviors to acknowledge that we haven’t read a book while nevertheless reserving the right to pass judgment on it.”

Those French. So cute, so quaint. We’re way ahead of you here in America, bud. Ever heard of a cable channel called Fox News? Talk radio? Pundits? Columnists? Bloggers? Bosses? We didn’t exactly need a French Professor/Psychoanalyst to give us permission to talk about shit we’ve never even been exposed to ourselves. But thanks. ‘Preciate ‘cha.

And why does any of this matter in the first place, this silliness with books? Bayard explains:

“In this cultural context, books – whether read or unread – form a kind of second language to which we can turn to talk about ourselves, to communicate with others, and to defend ourselves in conflict. Like language, books serve to express us, but also to complete us, furnishing, through a variety of excerpted and reworked fragments, the missing elements of our personality.

“Like words, books, in representing us, also inform what we are. We cannot coincide completely with the image the totality of our reading presents; whether the image makes us look better or worse than we should, behind it all our particularities vanish. And especially since books are often present within us only as little-known or forgotten fragments, we are often out of phase with the books that are our public face; they are as inadequate in the end as any other language.”

“The experience of not having read a book is the most common of scenarios, and only in accepting our non-reading without shame can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence.”

So I think Americans have grasped the whole Bayard go-ahead-and-talk-about-books-you-haven’t-read concept and have certainly gotten over the shame of doing so, but his argument and reasoning is so well polished and presented that I would like to include more of his concise thoughts, if only to not talk about them, but to just give them. Like little presents:

“What is important in the book is external to it, since it is only a pretext or vehicle for this moment of discussion: talking about a book is less about the book itself than about the moment of conversation devoted to it.”

And Bayard really gets going when he weighs in on criticism:

Oscar Wilde said that, “Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, an end.”

“Ultimately, criticism attains its ideal form when it no longer has any relation with a work.”

I’ll try to deviate more next time.

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2 Responses to “HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ BY PIERRE BAYARD”

  1. Hey that is really quite a pithy review James. I mean, I saw that there were some big words and it is kinda long.

    I just skimmed through it, really. Something about books and french-fries on Fox News, good stuff.

  2. Wowsers. A critical book about criticism of criticism… a book that validates its own existence by virtue of its own system. Is his book an example of his own thesis? I’m not sure how I feel about criticism for its own sake… if a classical idea of art is related to expressing or representing beauty, is criticism then, as an art, somehow meditating on the beauty of criticism (or of being critical)? I suppose that this is in part legitimate, for it is exactly our capacity for critical thinking that makes us humans so unique and interesting and, perhaps, beautiful. But what about truth? Beauty is truth, truth beauty… does criticism help us explore an objective truth or is it beautiful for its creative ability to generate new truth? Or is it all a bunch of crap? Crap that makes critics feel good about themselves? I’m reminded of the depiction of the Critics in Charles Stross’ science fiction masterpiece SINGULARITY SKY: a bunch of enormous, fugly, hairy elephant-like, slobbering and farting beasts who attempt to make order out of the chaos of futuristic society by talking about it.

    Like you, I find certain parts of his argument intriguing (though I need to read the actual book to truly develop my own opinion… or… perhaps I don’t?), but I have a hard time reconciling the full implication of his assertions when applied in a less intellectual (or dangerously slanted intellectual) context.

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