By Pierre Bayard, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. Raincoast Books, 185 pp, $24.95, hardcover
Do you feel guilty not having read the latest Nobel prizewinner? Do you experience insecurity in discussions of great literature because you've read less, or less deeply? Do you find yourself lying, even, when pressed to list works read?
Don't worry, says University of Paris VIII literature professor Pierre Bayard. Not only do you have nothing to feel bad about, you should flaunt your ignorance. Bayard himself is sanguine about his patchy education: "As a teacher, it is my lot more often than average to find myself obligated to speak to a large audience about books I haven't read, either in the strict sense (having never opened them) or in the attenuated sense (having only skimmed them or forgotten them).”¦I have often attempted to reassure myself with the thought that those who are listening to me are no doubt on similar ground and are probably no more confident about it than I am."
Outing himself is merely the first step. Through the course of How to Talk About Books, Bayard develops a theory of non-reading that champions leaving books' covers uncracked. Being a French author and psychoanalyst, he's comfortable deconstructing our most basic assumptions. "What is reading?" he asks. If you read a book then forget its details, is that book read? If you understand its context and its author's intentions, is it really unread? If you and I read a book together, have we even read the same book?
This leads, naturally, to questioning whether books contain any enduring content at all and, ultimately, to the most unsettling paradox: this book asks if books have any function at all. Bayard concludes they are merely the passageway leading passive readers to become active creators of meaning. In this, he quotes Oscar Wilde's maxim, "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." Deeply rooted in the tradition of French psychoanalytic philosophy (hence, the whole thing could be an abstruse joke), How to Talk concludes that not only is the author dead, but the book too. All that remains is library as singles' bar, each creator/consumer locked to the next in simultaneous, symbiotic self-regard.
Vive la France!