Summary and book reviews of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

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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Book Summary

If civilized people are expected to have read all important works of literature, and thousands more books are published every year, what are we supposed to do in those awkward social situations in which we’re forced to talk about books we haven’t read? In this delightfully witty, provocative book, a huge hit in France that has drawn attention from critics around the world, literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard argues that it’s actually more important to know a book’s role in our collective library than its details. Using examples from such writers as Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, Montaigne, and Umberto Eco, and even the movie Groundhog Day, he describes the many varieties of “non-reading” and the horribly sticky social situations that might confront us, and then offers his advice on what to do. Practical, funny, and thought-provoking, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is in the end a love letter to books, offering a whole new perspective on how we read and absorb them. It’s the book that readers everywhere will be talking about—and despite themselves, reading—this holiday season.

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 ...

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By all rights, I shouldn’t have to read this book. After all, Pierre Bayard begins with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so." But I did read it, swiftly, ferociously, and with a pen in hand. Many times I underlined a sentence I admired, such as this one: "He who pokes his nose into a book is abandoning true cultivation, and perhaps even reading itself." But just as often, I underlined in fierce disagreement. This book isn’t, finally, about books, but about book conversation, and I had a particularly lively one with it.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Clare Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children
I read and adored Pierre Bayard’s book. It's funny, smart, and so true—a wonderful combination of slick French philosophizing and tongue-in-cheek wit, and an honest appraisal of what it means, or doesn't mean, to read.

Les Inrockuptibles

With rare humor, Bayard liberally rethinks the social use [of literature] and the position of the reader…Read or skim How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Or simply listen to what people say about it so that you can talk about it with ease. In either case, you may not be able to forget it.

London Review of Books

Brilliant…A witty and useful piece of literary sociology, designed to bring lasting peace of mind to the scrupulous souls who grow anxious whenever the book-talk around them becomes too specific.

Publishers Weekly

A little too much impenetrable psychoanalytic jargon sometimes threatens to overwhelm Bayard's argument, but Bayard's at least partly tongue-in-cheek argument about not reading is well worth reading.

New York Books - Sam Anderson

[A] witty and useful piece of literary sociology, designed to bring lasting peace of mind to the scrupulous souls who grow anxious whenever the book-talk around them becomes too specific, and either say nothing or else say too much, only to feel bad later on at having faked first-hand acquaintance with authors or titles they know they’ve either never read or totally forgotten.

New York Times

It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune, not all must be read…A survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes…evidently much in need.

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Beyond the Book

Pierre Bayard was born in 1954. He is a professor of literature at the University of Paris VIII, as well a practicing psychoanalyst. He has written over a dozen books, most of which have not been translated into English.

Bayard's best-known work in English prior to How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read is a work of literary detection entitled Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, published in 2000. In this book, Bayard dares to suggest that Hercule Poirot's solution to one of Agatha Christie's best-loved mysteries, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is incorrect and that Christie has deliberately deceived the casual reader. On his way to fingering the real murderer, Bayard conducts a sustained investigation into the nature of detective...

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