Skimmed book. ++

Posted in Books, Graham Greene, lacan, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Bayard, reading by Deputy city editor on December 3, 2007

Pierre Bayard is a professor of French literature at Paris VII, a psychotherapist, and the génial author of the controversialist Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus ? His book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd (Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd?), a stylish rumination and theoretical investigation of the eponymous novel by Agatha Christie, is a structuralist classic. If Ackroyd was a preliminary excursion in subverting, deturning or drawing entertaining if sometimes insane theoretical inferences from sometimes slender evidence, then with this new work Professor Bayard is staging a scorched earth policy and questions whether it is worth reading any books at all. This is bound to be discutable and hence rentable. Bravo to an enterprising Frenchman. We can overlook that his inquiry has been published in the form of, excusez-moi, a book.

This treat has now appeared in English in the US and UK titled How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, professor of French literature at Boston University. Mehlman is an important translator of Lacan. He is also in his own right the author of the fascinating Emigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, study of the French community in New York during Vichy and up to the liberation, and the charming Walter Benjamin for Children, amongst others.

The quality of his translation is exceptional and one is laughing out loud at the fluent transmission of the jokes. En route Bayard reinvents the ending of The Name of the Rose, perfects Graham Greene’s Third Man, and even kills off a character belonging to David Lodge. One can tell that both author and Mehlman are having fun. The larger scope is that while Bayard has written an amazingly practical guide to bluffing your way in books (his techniques also work for film, television programmes and much else), he makes a serious point on the nature of reading itself, a process more subtle than generally acknowledged.

The original reaction to this book when it was published in French was admiring and dismissive, with a certain predictable (among academics) jealousy. Not least because it was so original and lucrative, so provocative and too clever by three quarters.

But also unsettling, and not so easily dismissed, as it asked a number of questions for which the correct answers are more nuanced than some would admit.

Bayard classified all books in four categories: Heard of book (HB), skimmed book (SB), unknown book (UB) and FB (forgotten book).

Hence, Ulysees he notes as an HB++ meaning an extremely positive opinion of a book he has heard of. Proust is an SB and HB++. It is not necessary to have read these books to locate them in their literary context, Bayard notes. As for reading books from start to finish – what a waste of time.

A delight of How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – dare I say it – is the extensive “reading” (or skimming) that Bayard has done to assemble a blue ribbon cast of sources to make his case against books.

Bayard begins with Musil’s character of the librarian who avoids reading, in order to better know all his books. The wisdom of Musil’s librarian lies in perspective, says Bayard. This is the prelude for a dazzling romp through read and unread print from Paul Valéry (on Proust and Anatole France), Shakespeare via the encounter of the Tiv tribe with Hamlet, the academic follies of David Lodge, to Umberto Eco, Bill Murray and Balzac, and above all, Oscar Wilde.

It was Oscar Wilde who warned against reading books before reviewing them and Bayard cites him enough to suppose that he has skimmed quite deeply into the canon of this should-be-sainted genius.

It is hard to argue with Bayard that life is too short for reading books, even if we do. And that reading them is not the most important thing about them. Still, as a work to provoke an intellectual jouissance, Bayard has produced a SB++, at least.

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a must for any bibliophile’s holiday stocking and a source of great comfort for those of us who have never got through A la recherche du temps perdu.

5 Responses

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  1. Helena Frith Powell said, on December 4, 2007 at 9:47 am

    I don’t mind if people don’t read my books. As long as they buy them Hx

  2. Cat Alane said, on December 4, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    Mr Bayard’s book seems particularly relevant to the recent scandal surrounding the 2007 Prix Goncourt, though a better title in this case would be “Comment voter pour un livre que l’on n’a pas lu!”

  3. Jonathan Miller said, on December 8, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Cat Alane is here reflecting a high-minded disgust with the Goncourt prize which may no longer be won by a book nor even an author but in a sort of buggins turn, by a maison d’édition.

  4. Daniel Miller said, on December 10, 2007 at 6:44 am

    “I don’t mind if people don’t read my books. As long as they buy them.”

    Truly noble.

  5. Michael J. Farrand said, on December 19, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Great post. Thought you might be interested in a list of early classic French novels and modern classic French novels and classic French plays.

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