It’s Rebecca’s fault that I read this. And does the fact that she enjoyed it so much suggest that she has never actually read any of those works she has discussed on Of Books and Bicycles? You’ll have to ask her about that.

Raincoast Books, 2007
Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman

Because certainly Pierre Bayard is making the point that you don’t need to have read a book (in the way that most of us define reading a book) to talk about it, to offer a meaningful opinion on it.

This is an idea with which I vehemently disagree. I know that not everybody feels the same way, but if I am doing to discuss a work of literature, particularly if I am going to criticize an aspect of it, I am going to make sure I read it first. (Take my re-read of Gone With the Wind, for example.)

This is something else with which Bayard seemingly disagrees. The idea he posits is that, given that we cannot read every book in the world, choosing some to read, while leaving others on the shelf, is an act of disrespect, so it’s better not to read any of them, let alone spend an excess of time with some.

Instead, he suggests, readers might be better off reading the tables of contents in books and leaving the text untouched.

This could ensure a wider arc of experience with books, an experience which would allow you to situate a particular book more accurately without having read it than you would have done if you’d gotten distracted by the content of the book itself.

(Clearly all these readers who rate books with a single star on GoodReads accompanied by the comment that they didn’t finish the book — and in many case they don’t even come close to finishing it — have read Bayard’s work.)

But what I do greatly appreciate about his work is the consideration of reading and not-reading and the sliding scale of experiences between those two states.

Really, Bayard’s theory on this is best enjoyed in his own words, so I’m not going to quote at length. But consider which of the following reading experiences is more valuable:

* an eight-year-old child who reads through George Orwell’s Animal Farm, aloud even, every word passing their lips, but ultimately having a very limited comprehension (in terms of some of the vocabulary and all of the allegorical aspects of the work); or

* a mature and world-wise adult, who has read its first and last chapter carefully, daydreamed about those segments while taking the subway to work and doing the dishes, and talked at length about them with someone who has some other experience of their own with Orwell’s novel.

FWIW, I’m not either of those readers; I read Animal Farm in twelfth-grade English class. And this example is drawn entirely from my own reader’s brain.

But it’s just the kind of thing that Bayard’s work had me thinking about, that what we call reading, and what we consider not-reading, is much more complicated and slippery than it seems.

Where do we draw the line between reading and skimming, reading and forgetting, reading and thinking about reading?

How well acquainted with a literary work must we be in order to declare our opinions about its literary merits or deficits?

It’s actually all very interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So, big thanks are due to Rebecca, after all.

(PS Should I, by all rights, mark this book as SB just because I skimmed the parts about Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose because I didn’t want to know who the murderer actually was? I haven’t read it, you see. And I might decide not to not-read it someday. Inside joke for Bayard readers.)

What bookish books have you been reading — or NOT reading — or thinking about reading lately?