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How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007) By Pierre Bayard – What is not Said Trumps What is not Read

September 6, 2010

In a recent issue of his popular history podcast Hardcore History, Dan Carlin expressed a note of regret regarding the direction that historical scholarship has taken over the last generation or so.  Time was, argues Carlin, that historians were in the Big Picture business: They would study whole periods of human history, cogitate upon them and then produce epic works of scholarship that drew upon their entire reserves of specialist knowledge and general scholarship in order to produce some universal moral or theory about human nature and society.  The exemplars of this type of historian, argues Carlin, are Will and Ariel Durant — whose 11-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning The Story of Civilization is, shockingly, currently out of print — but I would also list Kenneth Waltz whose Man, The State , And War (1959) remains one of the foundation texts of International Relations.

Contemporary scholars, suggests Carlin, are not just specialists but niche-dwellers.  Their interests lie precisely not in the Big Picture but in high definition images of microscopically small areas.  Most contemporary academic scholarship focuses upon areas so precisely defined and delimited that not only have the products of academic research become increasingly irrelevant to the intellectual culture at large, they are frequently inaccessible and incomprehensible even to other academics working in similar fields.  Modern academia is about depth, not breadth.  Specificity, not generality.

Of course, this is the result of changes in the culture of higher education.  Even after the Second World War, university education in general and post-graduate education in particular were still comparatively uncommon allowing researchers enough intellectual lebensraum in which to discuss big ideas without replicating each other’s work and treading on each others’ toes.  However, as the number of post-graduate students increased, so too did the need for more and more people to carve out professional niches for themselves.  As population numbers increased, so did competition for intellectual territory and in order to survive, young graduate students were forced to carve out small specialised intellectual niches that could sustain an entire career’s worth of research purely through the depth and power of their obscurity and inaccessibility.

This process of specialisatilon has resulted in academic criticism becoming divorced from the public sphere.  While humanities academics still do contribute to accessible cultural journals such as the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Sight & Sound and The London Review of Books, their public writings are frequently of a profoundly different character and form than their professional writings.  Indeed, the likes of A.C.Grayling and Richard Dawkins are famous public intellectuals but the works that make them well known are not necessarily the works that got them their professorships.

This shift in the humanities from an emphasis on breadth of knowledge to depth of specialisation is what lies behind Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.  The book is an extended essay that uses wit and provocation to poke fun at the cult of the specialist and argue for a return to an intellectual climate that championed the generalist over the specialist and the creative thinker over the niche-dweller.  Bayard’s book is not only funny and beautifully written, it is a wake-up call to an academic culture that foolishly surrendered the hustle and bustle of the intellectual marketplace for the easily-defended comfort of the ivory tower.

I just hope that the academics can find the stairs by themselves.

Book Cover

Bayard’s desire to provoke is evident from the book’s title.  Indeed. throughout the book, Bayard produces pithily counter-intuitive epithets which, when taken in isolation, appear to be nothing less than a clarion call for intellectual dishonesty or broad-spectrum philistinism :

“It is not at all necessary to be familiar with what you’re talking about in order to talk about it accurately” [p. 19]

“Abstaining from reading Proust’s work is the greatest compliment [one] can give him” [p. 20]

“The content of a book has little bearing on the commentary the book deserves.” [p. 140]

“The only true object of criticism is not the work it discusses, but itself.” [p.175]

These easily quoted and always amusing sound-bites are initially shocking but conceal fragments of profound truth beneath Bayard’s puckish tendency to use words like “reading” in entirely idiosyncratic ways.  Indeed, when Bayard suggests that we should all talk about books we have not read, he is not telling us how to bluff our way through cocktail party conversations or advocating that we refuse to read certain canonical works that are no longer as fresh or as entertaining as they could be.  Instead, he means that the emphasis for what it means to be cultured should shift away from being about detailed knowledge of particular texts to being about understanding where those texts fit into the wider histories of thought and culture.

Paul Valery, one of Bayard's literary heroes

Bayard explores these different relationships to culture and the book through examinations of a series of literary heroes who all display fantastic levels of cultivation and intellectual substance without actually reading the books they discuss.  For example, Bayard praises the librarian in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1942) for his interest not in books but in how different fields of human knowledge interact and intersect.  He also praises Paul Valery’s hilarious tendency to write about authors whose work he had not read, Umberto Eco’s character William of Baskerville from The Name of The Rose (1980) for working out the content of a lost work by Aristotle based upon his knowledge of his other writings and Montaigne’s tendency to forget not only whether he had read a particular book but whether he had actually written what people attributed to him.

Montaigne, whose forgetfulness makes him another of Bayard's heroes

Bayard’s attack on the idea of specialised knowledge relies upon the gradual dismantling of all the components involved in that particular relationship.  Indeed, how can one have specialised knowledge of a particular book when one can so easily forget the details of what one has read?  How can one have knowledge of any particular book when the character of a book is subject to change as time forces it to be re-contextualised and re-interpreted in different lights?  How can one have knowledge of anything when one changes all the time and so is never the same person one was when one read a particular book?

“The book is an undefined object that we can discuss only in imprecise terms, an object forever buffeted by our fantasies and illusions.” [p. 46]

Having rubbished the idea that one could ever achieve the detailed knowledge involved in ‘having read’ a book, Bayard sets about describing the kind of relationship we should be having with books.  He does this through the introduction of a series of theoretical concepts relating to types of library :

The first library is the Collective Library.  The Collective Library is the sum total of all the books that make up a culture at any particular time.  The key to being cultivated, according to Bayard, lies not in detailed knowledge of any particular text, but rather in knowing one’s way around a culture’s Collective Library :

“Culture is above all a matter of orientation.  Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.  The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.” [p. 11]

The second library is the Inner Library, which is created by the individual’s subjective experience of the Collective Library.  In the Inner Library, some books will loom larger than others because they have made more of an impression upon the individual, some books will be mere shadows of themselves because the individual is only vaguely aware of them, and the ordering and shelving will be different to that of the Collective Library as everyone’s experience of the Collective Library is different and so we all see the books as being connected in different ways.  Many disagreements about books and culture stem from the fact that not everyone’s Inner Library overlaps :

“The Conflict is not limited to any particular book, even if certain titles are mentioned, but bears more broadly on the very conception of what a book, and literature, may be.  For this very reason, achieving communication between the two libraries will not be easy, and any attempt to do so will inevitably create tension.” [p. 73]

The third library is the Virtual Library.  Bayard defines this as “the mobile sector of everyone’s collective library” meaning that it is the reconstructed impression of the Collective Library caused by the inter-weaving of different people’s Inner Libraries whenever they try to discuss books.  Virtual Libraries change depending upon who is involved in any particular discussion and so can vary not only from group to group but also from cultural tribe to cultural tribe as different and only partly overlapping conversations are had about some of the same books at the same time.  The very existence of Virtual Libraries requires that rather than having detailed knowledge of a small set of books, people have fluid and vague understandings of large numbers of books and the relations that pertain between them.

“All cultural literacy, even the most highly developed, is constructed around gaps and fissures that are no real obstacle to its taking on a certain consistency as a body of information.” [p. 125]

A useful analogy can be found in the way that different people talk to each other: None of us use language on the basis of a rote-learned knowledge of the dictionary.  Instead, we wander through life with somewhat vague definitions in our heads of what particular words mean.  Because our definitions are vague, our encounters with other language users are always a process of negotiation and active participation in what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a Language Game in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) :

“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call” [ §2, p.3]

Because the process of talking about books and understanding books is such a dynamic process, Bayard reserves special praise for the activity of literary criticism, which he considered the ne plus ultra of non-reading.  Quoting extensively from Oscar Wilde’s lovely dialogue “The Critic as Artist”, Bayard argues that criticism is a fundamentally creative act that rivals and frequently sur-passes the fiction and non-fiction that it is supposedly a reaction to.  Good critics, Bayard says, are supremely cultured and use particular texts only as starting points for the articulation of ideas that are produced not by the reading of any particular text but by the non-reading of all of culture.  As well as being a literary critic and an academic, Bayard is also a psychoanalyst and he sees criticism as an avenue not only for self-expression but creative self-actualisation :

“To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject.  In this inaugural moment when book and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself.” [p. 180]

However, there is an irony at work here.

Bayard’s fondness for provocation and rhetorical flourish hides a capacity for quite subtle thought.  As beautifully written as How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read may be — and well written in undoubtedly is, I don’t think I’ve ever read a work of non-fiction so beautifully structured and composed — much of the book’s theoretical meat is concealed in what is not actually written.  Indeed, it is no accident that the book’s big pieces of library and book-related jargon are presented in foot-notes rather than the actual body of the text itself.

For example, while Bayard is quite eager to sell us on the idea of not reading important books, he does not explain where our general culture will come from if nobody ever reads the important texts?  Indeed, Bayard’s analysis relies not just on quite close readings of the writings of Paul Valery, Umberto Eco, Robert Musil and Oscar Wilde but also an awareness of their careers as a whole.  Indeed, while one might well be familiar with some of the works of Balzac, Wilde or Valery, who else but a ‘specialist’ would know to seek out and quote from a speech made by Valery while accepting a university chair?  who but a student of Wilde would know to look past his plays and his poetry to his journalism to find his remarks upon the nature of criticism?  Do not read, Bayard says over and over again but clearly, if you want to a cultivated person you still need not only to have not-read quite a bit of stuff but you also need to know the correct texts to not-read and Bayard is somewhat unclear on where one would get this information except through the kind of specialised and in-depth study he scorns.

Similarly, when Bayard’s concludes with his quotations from Wilde and his exhortations for us to free ourselves from the tyranny of guilt over our lack of specialised knowledge, he pointedly does not draw attention to the other side of the coin he tosses at the critic’s feet.  Indeed, if this freedom from specialisation flatters the critic and unleashes his potential, it also places a number of new burdens upon him.  Reading through Bayard’s quotations from Valery, Wilde et al, one is struck less by how much specialised knowledge they do or do not display but by the sheer quality and subtlety of their writing.  A critic can be freed of the burden of line-by-line familiarity with a text but that is no guarantee at all that they will be able to generate lines like :

“The dead have but one last resort: the living.  Our thoughts are their only access to the light of day.  They who have taught us so much, who seem to have bowed out for our sake and forfeited to us their advantages, ought by all rights to be reverently summoned to our memories and invited to drink a draught of life through our words” [From Valery’s Occasions, quoted p. 21]

Indeed, by blurring the line between the author and the critic and encouraging us to gain not a specialised understanding of literature but a generalised one, Bayard is not really freeing us from anything.  He is simply shifting the goal posts : Critics can no longer be dusty specialists, they must be buccaneering generalists able to comment on all aspects of culture not only with insight but with devastating wit;  Artists cannot concentrate solely upon their experience and the world, they must also become acutely aware of the cultural contexts in which they write and participate fully in the conversations that flow around them and their work.

Bayard makes a powerful emotional case for a return to the cultural and intellectual values that held sway over the Western intelligentsia in the decades prior to the recent explosion in university education but he never quite manages to explain to us how it is that such a life of the mind should be lead.  We must all be intimately familiar with all books without reading them!

We can all be exceptional writers because there is nothing preventing us from being so!  Bayard draws us such beautiful fantasies but when it is time for fantasy to become flesh, he disappears in a puff of elegantly formed and deliciously scented smoke.  Bayard provokes but he does not argue or council.  To do so would be to enter the preserve of the specialists and specialists needs to read.

3 Comments
  1. September 6, 2010 10:42 am

    This sounds wonderful, thank you. I’ve been banging on the generalist vs. specialist drum for some time now, and I’m always interested when someone smarter than me takes on the topic.

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  2. September 6, 2010 2:29 pm

    It’s a hugely entertaining book Cheryl. Sentence-by-sentence it is hugely funny, paragraph-by-paragraph it is provocative and chapter-by-chapter it is elegantly structured. I simply could not put it down, clearly Jeffrey Mehlmann (who translated it from the original French) is an accomplished prose stylist in his own right.

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