How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read
by Pierre Bayard
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 termsfor indeed, they have neither the slightest inkling of what the
idea might be nor how it might perform its redemptive function beyond their
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 lovesDiotima, 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 greatestthat'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 librarythat
wellspring of fresh thoughtsto "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."
This encounter with the infinity of available books offers a certain
encouragement not to read at all. Faced with a quantity of books so vast that
nearly all of them must remain unknown, how can we escape the conclusion that
even a lifetime of reading is utterly in vain?
Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most
passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the
countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking
up and not opening all the other books in the universe.
If The Man Without Qualities brings up the problem of how cultural literacy
intersects with the infinite, it also presents a possible solution, one adopted
by the librarian helping General Stumm. This librarian has found a way to orient
himself among the millions of volumes in his library, if not among all the books
in the world. His technique is extraordinary in its simplicity: "When I didn't
let go of him he suddenly pulled himself up, rearing up in those wobbly pants of
his, and said in a slow, very emphatic way, as though the time had come to give
away the ultimate secret: 'General,' he said, 'if you want to know how I know
about every book here, I can tell you! Because I never read any of them.'" The
general is astonished by this unusual librarian, who vigilantly avoids reading
not for any want of culture, but, on the contrary, in order to better know his
books: "It was almost too much, I tell you! But when he saw how stunned I was,
he explained himself. 'The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads
anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of
contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a
librarian,' he explained. 'He's bound to lose perspective.'
'So,' I said, trying to catch my breath, 'you never read a single book?'
'Never. Only the catalogs.'
'But aren't you a Ph.D.?'
'Certainly I am. I teach at the university, as a special lecturer in Library
Science. Library Science is a special field leading to a degree, you know," he
explained. "How many systems do you suppose there are, General, for the
arrangement and preservation of books, cataloging of titles, correcting
misprints and misinformation on title pages, and the like?'"
Musil's librarian thus keeps himself from entering into the books under his
care, but he is far from indifferent or hostile toward them, as one might
suppose. On the contrary, it is his love of booksof all booksthat incites him
to remain prudently on their periphery, for fear that too pronounced an interest
in one of them might cause him to neglect the others.
To me, the wisdom of Musil's librarian lies in this idea of maintaining
perspective. What he says about libraries, indeed, is probably true of cultural
literacy in general: he who pokes his nose into a book is abandoning true
cultivation, and perhaps even reading itself. For there is necessarily a choice
to be made, given the number of books in existence, between the overall view and
each individual book, and all reading is a squandering of energy in the
difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole.
The wisdom of this position lies first of all in the importance it accords to
totality, in its suggestion that to be truly cultured, we should tend toward
exhaustiveness rather than the accumulation of isolated bits of knowledge.
Moreover, the search for totality changes how we look at each book, allowing us
to move beyond its individuality to the relations it enjoys with others
The idea of perspective so central to the librarian's reasoning has
considerable bearing for us on the practical level. It is an intuitive grasp of
this same concept that allows certain privileged individuals to escape unharmed
from situations in which they might otherwise be accused of being flagrantly
As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do
not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter
not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your
bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a
system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The
interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the
interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books
It is, then, hardly important if a cultivated person hasn't read a given book,
for though he has no exact knowledge of its content, he may still know its
location, or in other words how it is situated in relation to other books. This
distinction between the content of a book and its location is fundamental, for
it is this that allows those unintimidated by culture to speak without trouble
on any subject.
For instance, I've never "read" Joyce's Ulysses, and it's quite plausible that
I never will. The "content" of the book is thus largely foreign to meits
content, but not its location. Of course, the content of a book is in large part
its location. This means that I feel perfectly comfortable when Ulysses comes up
in conversation, because I can situate it with relative precision in relation to
other books. I know, for example, that it is a retelling of the Odyssey, that
its narration takes the form of a stream of consciousness, that its action
unfolds in Dublin in the course of a single day, etc. And as a result, I often
find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.
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.