Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

"I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." -Oscar Wilde; from the epigraph of How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read

In the spirit of How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, I'm going to write about it before I've finished it. Reading a book like this is a bit like reading Lemony Snicket's exhortations to put his books down, except that with Bayard's book you actually will be tempted to "not read" the book. Ways of "not reading" include skimming a book, forgetting a book once you've read it, and hearing about a book, which means you, m'dear, are a fellow non-reader of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

Beyond all the satire, Bayard points out that "not reading" books frees up time to learn about a little about all the important books out there that you don't have time to read. Having some idea of how works of literature relate to each other could be more valuable than having read some works of literature completely. (Now I understand how grad students get through those massive reading lists.) Personally, I think this means librarians can stop feeling guilty recommending books they haven't read to readers who like books about women who drive space barges.

I enjoyed looking for Bayard's citations of books that he talks about or quotes. He tells you whether he's read the book; skimmed the book; or heard of the book, and gives you a few plus or minus signs to indicate his impression of the book. Thom Geier of Entertainment Weekly recommended that you "skim his wittily annotated table of contents instead"; and this is good advice, too. In fact, I might finish this book because I want to read that story about Graham Greene in chapter 5.

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