How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (Bloomsbury, 185 pages, $19.95) is a curious little book.
The back cover asks a multiple choice question: Which of these great books have you:
A) talked about convincingly without ever cracking the spine?
B) read so long ago that you can't remember anything but the title?
C) skimmed just enough to have an opinion?
D) heard about so often that you don't have to bother reading it?
E) actually read?
I'm going to add a sixth choice:
F) never read?
Heart of Darkness
A Room of One's Own
Being and Nothingness
In Cold Blood
The Scarlet Letter
The Man Without Qualities
The Sun Also Rises
My own answers are a little embarrassing as I possess a B.A. in English. Three of the 12 I have read; nine I have not. I can say, however, that I've never tried to discuss something I haven't read. The author, Pierre Bayard, a French literature professor in Paris, argues that it can be done — and I guess he's right because look how much I've written without even opening the book yet?
"It is unsurprising that so few texts extol the virtues of non-reading," Bayard writes in the book's preface. "Indeed, to describe your experience in this area, as I will attempt here, demands a certain courage, for doing so clashes inevitably with a whole series of internalized constraints...
"The first of these constraints might be called the obligation to read...
"The second constraint, similar to the first but nonetheless distinct, might be called the obligation to read thoroughly. If it's frowned upon not to read, it's almost as bad to read quickly or to skim, and especially to say so. For example, it's virtually unthinkable for literary intellectuals to acknowledge that they have flipped through Proust's work without having read it in its entirety — though this is certainly the case for most of them."
Perhaps I'm being naive, but I'd like to think that all my literature professors from college actually read, many times over, the works we discussed in class. But, in the interest of testing out Bayard's ideas, I shall not read any more of his book and will happily discuss it with anyone who's interested.