Pierre Bayard
Comment parler des livres que n'on la pas lus.
Editions de Minuit, 198 pages, € 15

One of the great intellectual enterprises of the last century has been the destruction of boundaries. It is as if the triumphant bourgeoisie—from which, of course, the vast majority of intellectuals emerged—grew tired of the restraints that they had imposed upon themselves as the bourgeois virtues, and sought a justification for throwing them over in both metaphysics and the very structure of the universe. Thus the marginal became central, and the central marginal. Everything became fluid, nothing remained categorical, at least in theory: though bank accounts, for example, remained as categorical as ever.

In Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus, Pierre Bayard, a distinguished French critic, has found a new boundary to dissolve: the difference between having and not having read a book, and that between talking from knowledge and talking from ignorance. His book is a vindication of ignorance.

It is, however, extremely amusing and clever—though here I must add that I use the word “clever” at least partially in its English sense, that is to say meretriciously and ostentatiously intelligent rather than deeply so; it is more a search for applause than truth. It is a playful book, but speaking personally, I prefer play to take place in the playground rather than between the covers of books.

It is not easy to guess how far the author is being tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, there is a serious point behind the book, and it is wrong. The peroration at the end of the last chapter, in which the author appeals for the overthrow of the tyranny of culture so that everyone may release his creativity, and become a writer rather than a passive reader, is redolent of the very worst pedagogy of the 1960s that has produced an educational disaster in more than one country. The philosophy of culture that underlies the book might be summarized by adapting a phrase from Rousseau: man is born creative, but everywhere he does not create. His inherited culture, for which he has an exaggerated reverence, is to blame.

The author starts from several indisputable observations. We know the contents of many books that we have not read by means of hearsay, reviews, general knowledge, and so forth; we leaf through others in the attempt to extract their gist. We read books and forget most of their contents almost immediately, indeed in the very act of turning the page, unless we have photographic memories, which most of us do not; Montaigne tells us, and he is right, that we who write forget even that which we have written. Having read a book, we may remember fragments, but they are more likely to accord with our own psychological needs rather than to the actual contents of the book. In any case, even if we manage to hold in our minds a great deal of a book that we have read, our interpretation of its meaning and significance will, in all probability, differ considerably from that of another person with a similarly detailed grasp of it. Moreover, we should never forget that if we were to read one book a day during our entire adult lives, we should read no more than approximately 18,000 books. There are 200,000 books published per year in Britain alone. Thus the lacunae in our culture and knowledge are always vastly greater in size than our actual knowledge or accomplishment.

In the light of all this—supported by brilliantly chosen extracts from Graham Greene, Paul Valéry, Montaigne, Balzac, David Lodge, Oscar Wilde, and others—the categories of books that one has read and those that one has not read dissolve into each other. It is perfectly possible, for example, to know more about a book whose review one read yesterday than about a book one read from cover to cover twenty years ago. Thus, we should have no shame about talking about books we have not read, nor should we feel shame at not having read certain works that are traditionally taken as touchstones of a person’s literary culture.

It is a common argument these days that, if a dimension is continuous, then there is no real or essential difference between the two ends of the continuum. This is like saying that, because there is a continuum of heights between pituitary dwarves and pituitary giants, dwarves are not short and giants are not tall. The author employs his argument quite explicitly to persuade students—he is a university teacher—that they need read next to nothing, that discussions of literature on the basis of hearsay and even of sheer unadulterated ignorance are as productive, perhaps even more productive because less inhibited, than those based upon close reading and understanding of context. Why bother to read anything if all it does is cramp your style?

It is of course true, as matter of empirical fact, that we constantly discourse on subjects about which we know nothing or next to nothing. As a journalist, I am only too well aware of this: I seldom turn down a commission on the grounds that I know nothing of the subject. In the kingdom of the ignorant, the man with one fact is king: and with the advent of the internet, it is amazing how quickly one can acquire so many facts that one appears like an expert who has devoted his life to accumulating knowledge on precisely this subject. It is also amazing how few people bother to look up facts on the subjects about which they are prepared to express, often with passion, an opinion. This has been the salvation of many a journalist.

But this does not in the least dissolve the distinction between real expertise and superficial acquaintance. Mr. Bayard’s book will give aid and comfort to all those callow young people who, on contradicting a person who knows incomparably more about the subject than they, fall back on the argument that “My opinion is as valid as yours.” The right to an opinion is here mistaken for the foundation of facts and the validity of the argument upon which it is based.

Mr. Bayard makes another very common mistake. Because there is no final or indubitable interpretation of a work such as Hamlet, the number of possible interpretations is infinite; therefore, according to the argument, no interpretation is impossible, and thus every person’s opinion is as good as another’s, even if he has no direct acquaintance with the play.

But it is to mistake the nature of infinity to assert that because there are an infinite number of possible interpretations, there can be no impossible ones. This has a parallel with the bourgeois bohemian misapprehension throughout the twentieth century. If we want a world of infinite possibilities, they believed, nothing must be forbidden (it is forbidden to forbid, to quote the slogan of the Parisian students in 1968). If any possibility is forbidden, the bourgeois bohemian, who never wants to foreclose on any possibility for himself, thinks that the number of possibilities becomes less than infinite. This is not so: the fact that there are grammatical rules which exclude certain combinations of words does not in any sense restrict the number of possible utterances.

There is great pleasure to be had from reading a brilliant sophist, and I can only hope this book will soon be translated for the delectation of intelligent readers. But it ought to be kept out of the hands of professors of literature.