Bypass this book, for a better understanding
IN the years when I was literary editor of this newspaper I developed some skill in an art only now given full attention, by the French academic Pierre Bayard. It is assumed that a literary editor would keep up with the latest in books. But in the 10 years I was in the job I never read less or skimmed more. There were simply too many: the cartons never stopped thumping on to my desk.
So I bluffed. I bluffed at dinner parties, at conferences, and at literary lunches, where it was my task to introduce celebrity guests to large crowds of genuine readers. For example, I tried, but was unable to read, Ken Follett, whom I introduced glowingly. Gradually a principle emerged. The more successful the writer, the worse the prose.
I tried, but again failed, with Sidney Sheldon, fighting my way through chapters of cliches before giving up. Though my introduction was again enthusiastic, he didn’t look happy as he made his way to the lectern, and after his speech he glared at me: ‘‘ You took that off the press release.’’ ‘‘ Not entirely.’’ ‘‘ OK then, how does it finish?’’ ‘‘ Well,’’ I said. ‘‘ Very well, indeed.’’
For the fraud, the fibber and the phony, help is at hand. Only a Frenchman schooled in the mysteries of post- structuralism and deconstruction could insist there’s no clear line between reading and non- reading. Non- reading, Bayard argues, is in fact a richer field than its opposite, covering books that one has skimmed, heard about or simply forgotten.
Reading, the author claims, is a suspect notion. Given the number of works in existence, a choice must be made between the individual book and the overall view of books. Rather than any particular work, it is the connections between them that should be the focus of the cultivated person: ‘‘ Relations between ideas are far more important than the ideas themselves.’’
By now it will have dawned on even the slowest anglophone reader that Bayard is a satirist, and an elegant one, in the tradition of Pascal and Voltaire. And now that his advice has been followed and the author located along the line of The Provincial Letters and Candide , we have his permission to read no further.
But I pressed on, eager for more argument against actually reading a book. Even the most thorough readings, he goes on to say, shrink into summary soon afterwards, and eventually this too disappears. From its first moments, reading entails a process of forgetting. Below the apparently confident dedicated reader there’s an uncertain figure, ‘‘ lost among fragments of texts he can barely identify’’.
More: these fragments
our fantasies to make up parts of our own private inner- book, which we’re always seeking to complete, and against which we judge what books we do read. This is why we so rarely agree with another reader of the same book. She’s judging it against her inner- book, just as we are against ours. Better to discuss books neither has read, when we’re on surer ground.
Bayard’s aim ( he is also a psychiatrist) is to relieve the guilt that has hitherto gone with nonreading. He insists that, far from being passive, it calls upon all one’s reserves of creativity when an unread book is discussed. Since its text is essentially elusive and ungraspable, it’s better to imagine rather than read it. The traditional reverence for an author is thus replaced by something far more satisfying and inventive: one becomes an author oneself.
It was Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida who first proposed that the written text has no firm identity, that language never comes to rest in a stable meaning. It has taken a fellow Frenchman to take this notion to the point of absurdity, and hold it up to richly deserved ridicule.
But in mocking a tiresome theory of language, Bayard becomes tiresome himself. The athletic elegance of his arguments is gradually weighed down by long extracts from authors ranging from Montaigne and Balzac to Umberto Eco and Graham Greene, some of whom have only an indirect relevance to Bayard’s case.
How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is really an essay padded up into a book: one that, true to its author’s principles, I recommend you not read, so you can discuss it the better. Journeys, the fifth collection of stories edited by Barry Oakley for Five Mile Press, is out now.