A bluffer's guide

<strong>How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read</strong>

Pierre Bayard <em>Granta Books, 192pp,

Despite Victoria Beckham's pioneering example (she famously told the Spanish magazine Chic that she'd never read a book), the fashion for not reading has yet to take off. This is a shame, because, as a university teacher and a reviewer, I am required to talk about books that I haven't read (or haven't quite read) almost every day. There's a vast discrepancy between what academics appear to have read and the books that they actually know.

Then again, as Pierre Bayard points out, how well does anyone ever know a book? I think of the student who wrote with such morbid conviction about Mrs Dalloway's "suicide" that I ended up surreptitiously checking my copy under the desk. Or the time I reviewed a novel by Thomas Pynchon while baffled by its textual workings. Such declarations may not be professionally astute, but, as Pierre Bayard notes, "we still live in a society . . . where reading remains the object of a kind of worship". There is also, he suggests, an "obligation to read thoroughly. If it's frowned upon not to read, it's almost as bad to read quickly or skim, and especially to say so."

In this slim and highly engaging volume, the university professor and psychoanalyst explores the sense of shame that surrounds those who admit to having not read a book, or find themselves elaborating on their reading habits. Bayard notes that "it's totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven't read - including, and perhaps especially, with someone who hasn't read it either". Yoking together a series of literary and philosophical essays, Bayard riffs on the idea of not reading - and argues that it is a crucial and challenging activity.

It is difficult to summarise the essays, and most of them depend on playful presentation. Using examples ranging from Flaubert, Valéry and Balzac to David Lodge and Hollywood films (which he may or may not have seen and read), Bayard points out that all readers are necessarily selective, orientating themselves in a landscape of unopened books. He touches on the joy experienced in not reading: one gets to imagine books as other than they are. An unread book can be a sort of promised land, rather like the imagined thrill of a celebrity shag.

In one wonderful chapter, Bayard compares the experience of teaching literature at university level with a fictional account of a research trip undertaken by Laura Bohannan in the 1950s. Determined to prove that "human nature is the same everywhere", Bohannan spent a few months discussing the text of Hamlet (as relayed by her) with the Tiv tribe of West Africa. The elders of the tribe managed to make a number of comments on the play - and to dispute and unsettle accepted readings of the text - without ever having read it. As Bayard argues, his students "often comment about books they haven't read" in similar ways "that are not only relevant, but indeed quite accurate".

Bayard's central interest is in what he perceives to be the general "embarrassment about the work". Such a phrase loses some of its resonance in translation. (As does the book as a whole: there is something about its French psychoanalytic tone that doesn't always translate.) However, what Bayard is hinting at, and what he captures in this work, is the awkwardness of our times - the mass of printed and electronic matter that is constantly available. With this embarrassment of texts comes a concomitant shame about not knowing enough stuff.

Given this climate, it is no surprise that books with "how" in the title often find their way on to the bestseller list. Bayard's book is, in this sense, an elaborate joke - both about itself and about the consolation readers take in culture-lite. It is partly Bayard's sense of humour that prevents it from becoming yet another addition to that lucrative but forgettable niche genre: the poncey-and-partly-educational loo-book. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read may also have a serious cause, which distinguishes it from the mass of How Tos. Bayard seems to have a commitment to challenge some of the metaphors we live by. Those who see reading as virtuous, he demonstrates, are resisting another sort of risk - that of being a writer. As he concludes:

All education should strive to help those
receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation
to works of art to themselves become writers
and artists . . . Were I to . . . again join the mob of
passive readers, I would feel that I was
betraying myself by being unfaithful to the
milieu from which I came; to the path on books
I have been obliged to take in order to create
and to the duty I feel today to assist others in
overcoming their fear of culture, and in daring
to leave it behind to begin to write.

It's a bit of an epic send-off. Bayard sounds a bit like the professorial equivalent of a Marxist Stephen Dedalus, setting out on the teaching career to end all teaching careers. One hopes he is not entirely serious - but, as with this book as a whole (or, at least, what I've read of it), it's rather hard to tell.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked