Beyond the Book: Background information when reading How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

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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 by Pierre Bayard
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 208 pages

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Amy Reading

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About this Book

Beyond the Book

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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 stories and the blind spots they exploit in hiding their solutions in plain sight, which he extends to other literary genres as well. He writes, "Many readers of fictional texts have at times experienced the disagreeable impression that they are being kept in the dark." As in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, this book concerns itself with literature that "disturbs the transparency of reading." Reading, for Bayard, is never the simple transaction between author and reader that it would seem.

It is fitting that, though he is in the business of writing about and teaching literature, Pierre Bayard would focus his attention on non-reading rather than reading. His background in psychoanalysis predisposes him to notice what is hidden or repressed, what our culture forbids, and the power that derives from such prohibition. He is interested, then, in the "widespread hypocrisy" that attends the discussion of such a taboo topic as non-reading, and says that he knows "few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex, in which it's as difficult to obtain accurate information."

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read was originally published as Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? and was destined for the academic market but became an unexpected bestseller in France. American and British publishers avidly sought English rights and the book is now available on both sides of the Atlantic, accompanied by reviews that fully enter into the spirit of Bayard's game. Several reviewers claim to have written their reviews without having cracked the book's spine (such as The Guardian and The Times of London) and all try to out-clever Bayard in their turns of phrases (one reviewer in New York Magazine impishly deconstructs Bayard's author photograph, noting that "he appears to be sucking on something, perhaps the word oeuvre").

In employing this strategy, however, such reviewers respond more to the marketing surrounding the book, which positions it as a sparkling companion to the cocktail party circuit, and less to its substance, which is often fairly mordant about the risks of reading to one's very personality. Several reviewers somewhat alarmingly note that they’ll take Bayard's lessons on non-reading to heart, as in this concluding passage by John Sturrock in the London Review of Books: "We all of us carry some sort of virtual library inside our heads that we have every right to draw on without worrying whether it matches the virtual libraries of others or is especially faithful to the facts of the books we find ourselves discussing. I mean to be a whole lot less scrupulous about these things in future."

This article was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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