On the art of not reading / Die Kunst des Nichtlesens

I haven’t got the TLS for this week yet, but one article is online: a review by Adrian Tarhourdin of a book by a French professor of literature and psychoanalyst on how to talk about books one has not read:

Pierre Bayard
Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?
162pp. Minuit. 15euros. 978 2 7073 1982 1

Bayard finds three constraints shaming us: the need to read, the need to read something to the bitter end, and the need to read a book if we are to talk about it.

[Bayard] divides the works he mentions into four categories: “LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliés” (books he has read but forgotten). Ulysses, for example, falls into the category “LE”: he claims not to have read the novel, but he can place it within its literary context, knows that it is in a sense a reprise of the Odyssey, that it follows the ebb and flow of consciousness, and that it takes place in Dublin over the course of a single day. When teaching he makes frequent and unflinching references to Joyce.

Here’s a quote from Bayard himself:

“in order to . . . talk without shame about books we haven’t read, we should rid ourselves of the oppressive image of a flawless cultural grounding, transmitted and imposed [on us] by the family and by educational institutions, an image which we try all our lives in vain to match up to. For truth in the eyes of others matters less than being true to ourselves, and this truth is only accessible to those who liberate themselves from the constraining need to appear cultured, which both tyrannizes us and prevents us from being ourselves.”

Like Bayard at one point in the article, I am not sure how blatant one should be about ignorance. For instance, I once spent some time around a dinner table where another guest spent some time discussing how bad the Harry Potter novels (as it happens) are, but she hadn’t read any of them herself.

7 thoughts on “On the art of not reading / Die Kunst des Nichtlesens

  1. Thanks, Michael. It is quite inconceivable to me that anyone would order grits in Tottenham Court Road, let alone get them. I think they may be sold by a US food specialist. Incidentally, KFC in F

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