February 24, 2007

The literature professor with the nerve to lecture about books he's only skimmed...

... is selling a lot of copies of "How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read."
“I am surprised because I hadn’t imagined how guilty nonreaders feel,” [Pierre] Bayard, 52, said in an interview. “With this book, they can shake off their guilt without psychoanalysis, so it’s much cheaper.”

Mr. Bayard reassures them that there is no obligation to read, and confesses to lecturing students on books that he has either not read or has merely skimmed. And he recalls passionate exchanges with people who also have not read the book under discussion.

He further cites writers like Montaigne, who could not remember what he read, and Paul Valéry, who found ways of praising authors whose books he had never opened. Mr. Bayard finds characters in novels by Graham Greene, David Lodge and others who cheerfully question the need to read at all. And he refuses to be intimidated by Proust or Joyce.

Having demonstrated that non-readers are in good company, Mr. Bayard then offers tips on how to cover up ignorance of a “must-read” book....

... Mr. Bayard’s most daring suggestion is that nonreaders should talk about themselves, using the pretext of the book without dwelling on its contents. In this way, he said, they are forced to tap their imagination and, in effect, invent their own book.
How bloggerly!

Well... hmmm... I haven't read Bayard's book, so let me say that this makes me think about devising a set of tips for teaching law school without reading the cases. (Me, I feel compelled to reread the cases I teach right before each class, so that there are some cases that I've read closely more than 40 times. Did you know that it's emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is?)

I know one lawprof who's proud of the time -- like, the one time -- that he got to the end of the cases he'd prepared and used the Socratic method to teach the next case, which he'd never read. It went quite well, he says.

Theoretically, it could work especially well, because your actual need to figure out what happened in the case and why it's in the book would drive your questions. But the guilt!


Ron said...

I loved an old National Lampoon story: Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes. When you can't even read the Cliff Notes! Old Testament: "God creates man, and everything man does makes God angry!"

Someday all lit courses will just be podcasts...

Bissage said...

If I ever meet Professor Bayard I’ll have to ask him if he ever hung around with Elvis Costello.

Now he's telling her every little thing he's done.
Once he glanced at the jackets of some paperbacks
Now he's read every one.

He's such a drag (He's such a drag).
He's not insane (He's not insane).
It's just that everybody has to feel his pain.
There's gonna be no dancing when they get home.

I hope things have turned out better for him in the relationship department.

Headline Junky said...

Not reading a book is the only way to come to a truly objective opinion about it. Besides, nowadays, it's not about the book anymore. It's all about Oprah.

CB said...

Reminds me of the joke among philosophy graduate students:

Q: Have you read Kant?

A: Read him? I've never even taught him.

Unknown said...

If anything proves folks can argue about something they've never read, or don't understand, it's the comment sections on blogs.

Notwithstanding this one, of course... :-)

NDC said...

It really reads like an Onion story. I encourage you to re-read it imagining it is an Onion parody.

How bad non-reader feel and allowing them to get rid of the guilt? Totally, Oprahized rhetoric. As if helping people mislead others is a worthwhile therapeutic service.

The advice he gives to people to fake it works in part, in my opinion, because people who are really into books, myself included, often do the same things about books we've read.

If you assume that you and someone you know have read a given book, you often to talk about how the book connects to your life. You rarely to a critical review of how the book functions technically, etc.

The (non) parody works as parody because of how pathetic we literary nerds are.

NDC said...

Thinking about it, I probably mean satire more than parody.

Unknown said...

Ah! I wonder if he's a cheelah of Willis Barnstone, whose contribution to the world of translation is the theory that you don't have to be able to read the language you're translating from, or even understand what you're translating -- you just put your hands over the text and feel it!

SGT Ted said...

Good lord, such rampant fraud.

PatCA said...

"How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read."

Isn't that what the NYT Review of Books is for? :)

I'm Full of Soup said...

How to talk about books you haven't read....doh- wait that is what we are doing now.

Methinks this may be why they say life (on the blog) imitates art?

reader_iam said...

I'd rather read than discuss this topic.

reader_iam said...

; )

LutherM said...

Ann - Commendations for your repeatedly reading the dissent of Mr. Justice Harlan in Plessey - a straightforward approach to the Constitution and racial discrimination, (both direct and reverse).

Peter Patau said...

Books are obsolete. Index cards are in: Build a better graph or diagram, and the world will beat a path to your door. Jessica Hagy’s blog, Indexed: As Emerson might have said, but didn’t: "Build a better mousetrap, and you can forget about being part of the long tail."

vbspurs said...

You know how you talk about books you haven't read?

Get yourself a brainyish daughter, who is a bluestocking and consequently has a twin tower of books near her bed.

Then, just before you go off to a dinner party, you pump her for knowledge about that book everyone is reading, and then you go off to dazzle your dinner partner.

Has worked like a CHARM for years with my mother.


I'm Full of Soup said...


What the hell is a bluestocking ? I thought you were a redcoat.

And don't tell me I have to buy your book and read it to find out.

vbspurs said...

AJ, baby, you look up the word bluestocking in the Merriam-Webster and you'll find a picture of me.

An pale archive rat bent over a book, 5 hours of every day.

At least I shave my legs.