The success of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read has made the book, no doubt to Bayard’s utter ecstasy, a perfect mise en abyme of nonreading. The central question it raises about every other book now applies equally to itself: Once a text whistles off into the slipstream of international hype, does it still need to exist? Or has our society, in its advanced stages of info-fluency, finally managed to do away with the thing itself?
By the time Bayard’s book got to me, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was already halfway done with my piece, and reading it at this point felt like a surrender to the repressive bourgeois book fetish that I’d just been thoroughly indoctrinated against by all the other reviews I’d read, not to mention a clear betrayal of the conceit in my opening paragraph. I set it aside, unopened, and tried to keep working. But the tiny Lutheran pastor who lives in my heart wore me down with a series of stern sermons about the sacred trust of book reviewing, and (since I’ve always kind of been into repressive norms) eventually I gave in.
It turns out that Bayard’s book benefits significantly from not being read. Although it’s witty and charming and often fun, it seems to have been designed for abridgment—it’s best when condensed into bullet points. Its argument is, despite all the psychoanalytic bells and whistles, pretty familiar. Is it news to anyone that we forget most of what we read, or that all reading is subjective? So to sensationalize matters, he consistently leans on the counterintuitive: Because we can read only a fraction of all the books published, he writes, “all reading is a squandering of energy.” The book’s tone is stranded halfway between a real work of social theory and satire—it’s Derrida crossed with “A Modest Proposal”—and this tension makes it hard to decide what’s really at stake.
Even Bayard’s personal revelation that he’s “read relatively little” turns out to be untrue: He told an interviewer that the book “is told by a fictional personality who boasts about not reading and is obviously not me. This is not a book written by a nonreader.” Under the guise of revolutionary honesty, he’s actually being dishonest.
My biggest gripe is that Bayard’s conception of reading is entirely social— a way to rack up points at cocktail parties. At the risk of sounding like the fusty old crank everyone does impressions of in the faculty lounge, I still believe in the private ecstasy of reading. It’s one thing to jockey for social position by saying that Dostoyevsky introduced psychology into the novel, or that Chaucer had a fuller grasp of humanity than Shakespeare. It’s another thing to experience, with your full attention, Raskolnikov wandering feverishly around St. Petersburg, or the young scholar farting in the face of his romantic rival in “The Miller’s Tale.” Real reading is not just hoarding fodder for cocktail chatter, it’s crawling, phrase by phrase, through a text and finding yourself surprised or disappointed or ruined or bored with every other line. This direct connection—the voice that enters your brain and mingles with your own internal voice—is the only way books really matter, and experiencing it requires a kind of deep surprise at the words in front of you. If anything, we’re already too good at talking about books we haven’t read. The challenge now is to preserve our ignorance.