What does it really mean to say that you have ‘read’ a book?

This is my review of ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’  by Pierre Bayard, written for Amazon a few years ago:

As I was reading this book I was agreeing with a review I had read that suggested that its content was far more serious, more profound even, than its provocatively silly title implied. By the time I had finished I was veering back towards judging the book by its cover, or more specifically its title. On further reflection still – and this book has provoked my continuing attention – I am back somewhere between these two positions.
Bayard is a French Literature academic and he has written a playful treatise into the nature of reading, illustrated by examination of a number of very disparate texts. He asks the seemingly simple question `What does it mean to say one has read a book?’ and follows this up by presenting a number of challenges to the most obvious answers. If we have `read’ a book but have forgotten everything about it, maybe even forgotten that we have ever had any contact with it, then in what sense do we mean that we have `read’ it? Conversely, if we have, say, read a detailed review of another, or heard it discussed somewhere, or if it is among those publications that have seeped into so many crevices in our culture, and we are perhaps therefore conversant with many of its features, in what sense can we be said `not to have read’ it, especially by comparison to the first, forgotten volume?

“The uncertainty of the border between reading and not reading will lead me to reflect more generally on the ways we interact with books” Bayard states in his Preface and this he then does wittily and, for me, for the most part, engagingly for the best part of 200 pages.

The book is divided into three main sections – `Ways of Not Reading’, `Literary Confrontations’ and `Ways of Behaving’ and, within each, four chapters (with titles like `Books You Have Heard Of’, `Encounters With Someone You Love’ and `Not Being Ashamed’) flesh out, sometimes a little repetitively I felt, Bayard’s main arguments. Each chapter examines a particular text for illustrative purposes and these range from books I personally was not aware of, through those like Graham Greene’s `The Third Man’ to even include discussion of one film, `Groundhog Day’.

Bayard’s central thesis is that to be able to talk about books, to be able to live the `literary life,’ to be considered `well read’, one has to appreciate where any particular book is located within the immense library of all books that have been written. It is this sense and knowledge of place – of genres, traditions, innovations, similarities and contrasts – rather than a detailed knowledge of the book’s content, wherein one may become hopelessly lost, that constitutes a cultured and cultivated approach to the world of books, a life that Bayard argues is essentially social rather than solitary.

Far more than a bluffer’s guide to literature, this book takes an argument that could probably have been delivered within an extended essay and embellishes major points with a playful tour of familiar and obscure works. Aimed perhaps more at those – academics, students, critics – for whom talking or writing about books is a career requirement, this idiosyncratic little book should however also interest and challenge the general reader prepared to tolerate the whimsical and the profound being shelved adjacently in her or his own `interior library’.

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