- Unreading, Rereading, and the Art of Not Reading
[T]he art of not reading is highly important.—Arthur Schopenhauer
In the early months of 2007, the highbrow Parisian publishing house Éditions de Minuit publishes Pierre Bayard’s Comment parler des livres que l’on a pas lus? to great public interest. The book apparently answers a need: it is an immediate success and becomes one of the French bestsellers of the summer of 2007, with translations in all of the major European languages. If one overlooks the question mark at its end, as most translations appear to have done, the manual-like title suggests the book provides practical tips on how to bluff one’s way through reading. As such, it places the thin paperback lightly but squarely in the “How-to” category, at the opposite end of Matei Calinescu’s magisterial Rereading (1993), which is above all concerned with what happens after, and not before or instead of reading. Yet, how different are the two books really? Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, as the title of the English translation goes, and Calinescu’s Rereading, ostensibly differ significantly: they have different agendas, are written for different audiences, and command different readings. Yet their reflections on non-reading and re-reading also reveal structural similarities, showing re-reading and not-reading to be part of the same paradigm. In this essay in homage to Matei Calinescu, I propose to tease out some of the tensions between the art of non-reading and that of re-reading. I believe this exercise is entirely in the spirit of Calinescu’s probing inquiry into the plights and pleasures of literary reading and that, as such, it forms an appropriate tribute to his contribution to Western intellectual history and to the field of comparative literature.
Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?
Behind the question mark in Bayard’s title, Comment parler des livres que l’on a pas lus?, lurks a host of questions. Why would one want to talk about books one has not read? Why talk about books at all? To what social pressures [End Page 261] is reading subjected, that one would feel the need to talk about books—and especially about books not read? What is the social meaning of reading? And of non-reading? What, as a matter of fact, is “reading”?
There is, of course, no singular answer to the question “What is Reading?” It opens onto the vast field of reading theory—reception aesthetics and reader-response theory, as well as all manner of empirical studies of reading and readers, including sociological, psychological, and cognitive ones. To this field, Bayard now adds an inquiry into the question of what constitutes a read book: when can one say one has read a book? When is it “read”—or “unread”? As Bayard point out, reading refers to a variety of practices, ranging from scanning and flipping through the pages of a book to careful perusal of the text: “Between a book we’ve read closely and a book we’ve never even heard of, there is a whole range of gradations that deserve our attention…. Conversely, many books that by all appearances we haven’t read exert an influence on us nevertheless, as their reputations spread through society” (2007, xvi). To negotiate this grey area between the read and the unread, Bayard elaborates a system of abbreviations designed to convey the extent of his knowledge of the books he talks about, distinguishing between books that are unknown to him (UB), books he has skimmed (SB), books he has heard of (HB), and books he has forgotten (FB). This system of abbreviations he complements with notations indicating his opinion of the talked-about book, ranging from ++ for “extremely positive opinion” to – – for “extremely negative opinion” (xi, xviii).
Bayard’s inquiry into the subject of reading takes its point of departure into the identification of three constraints that govern our interaction with books: the “obligation to read,” which applies especially to canonical texts; the obligation to read thoroughly; and the tacit assumption that one must have read a book to talk about...