Excerpt from How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

By Pierre Bayard

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2007,
    208 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2009,
    208 pages.

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Ways of Reading: Books You Don't Know

(in which the reader will see, as demonstrated by a character of Musil's, that reading any particular book is a waste of time compared to keeping our perspective about books overall)

There is more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open a book at all. For any given reader, however dedicated he might be, such total abstention necessarily holds true for virtually everything that has been published, and thus in fact this constitutes our primary way of relating to books. We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read.

If we take this attitude to the extreme, we arrive at the case of the absolute non-reader, who never opens a book and yet knows them and talks about them without hesitation. Such is the case of the librarian in The Man Without Qualities, a secondary character in Musil's novel, but one whose radical position and courage in defending it make him essential to our argument.

Musil's novel takes place at the beginning of the last century in a country called Kakania, a parody of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A patriotic movement, known as Parallel Action, has been founded to organize a lavish celebration of the upcoming anniversary of the emperor's reign, a celebration that is intended to serve as a redemptive example for the rest of the world. The leaders of Parallel Action, whom Musil depicts as so many ridiculous marionettes, are thus all in search of a "redemptive idea," which they evoke endlessly yet in the vaguest of terms—for indeed, they have neither the slightest inkling of what the idea might be nor how it might perform its redemptive function beyond their country's borders.

Among the movement's leaders, one of the most ridiculous is General Stumm (which means "mute" in German). Stumm is determined to discover the redemptive idea before the others as an offering to the woman he loves—Diotima, who is also prominent within Parallel Action: "You remember, don't you," he said, "that I'd made up my mind to find that great redeeming idea Diotima wants and lay it at her feet. It turns out that there are lots of great ideas, but only one of them can be the greatest—that's only logical, isn't it?—so it's a matter of putting them in order."

The general, a man of little experience with ideas and their manipulation, never mind methods for developing new ones, decides to go to the imperial library—that wellspring of fresh thoughts—to "become informed about the resources of the adversary" and to discover the "redemptive idea" with utmost efficiency.

The visit to the library plunges this man of limited familiarity with books into profound anguish. As a military officer, he is used to being in a position of dominance, yet here he finds himself confronted with a form of knowledge that offers him no landmarks, nothing to hold on to: "We marched down the ranks in that colossal store house of books, and I don't mind telling you I was not particularly overwhelmed; those rows of books are not particularly worse than a garrison on parade. Still, after a while I couldn't help starting to do some figuring in my head, and I got an unexpected answer. You see, I had been thinking that if I read a book a day, it would naturally be exhausting, but I would be bound to get to the end sometime and then, even if I had to skip a few, I could claim a certain position in the world of the intellect. But what do you suppose the librarian said to me, as we walked on and on, without an end in sight, and I asked him how many books they had in this crazy library? Three and a half million, he tells me. We had just got to the seven hundred thousands or so, but I kept on doing these figures in my head; I'll spare you the details, but I checked it out later in the office, with pencil and paper: it would take me ten thousand years to carry out my plan."

Excerpted from How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard Copyright © 2007 by Pierre Bayard. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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