The inner book: Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read*.

Pierre Bayard is a  professor of French literature with books on Proust, Balzac and Stendhal to his credit, so it seems a bit smartypants of him to be advising us how we can fool others into thinking we’re better-read than we are.  He’s joking, of course – and he isn’t. His title is deliberately cheeky, and he has a lot of fun, but he’s also a psychoanalyst and so of course he has a theory about how we behave as readers and what it means to be a reader.

Why do you have those knock-down-drag-out fights at your book club, and why is one person’s 5-star book another person’s 1-star book? Bayard says we’re all talking about different things when we discuss the same book: What we take to be the books we have read is in fact an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands…

Our experience, our moral standards and our emotional compass influence how we judge books. One person’s  interestingly gritty is another person’s unbearably grim, one person’s sexy is another person’s pornographic, one person’s funny is another person’s childish/silly/trite/pointless/rude/crude. There’s a good story in the book about an American anthropologist explaining Hamlet to an African tribe who find it just plain ridiculous according to their view of the world.

But that isn’t really what Bayard’s talking about in the quote above. It’s not only our personal experience of life that influences our judgments. He thinks we each have  a unique reading identity,  constructed by all the books we know about. Each of us lives in a private world of all the books we’ve read/skimmed/heard about. I think anyone who’s grown up in a bookish house understands exactly what he means.

So why do we keep reading? Why do we choose to read this book rather than that one? What are we looking for? According to Bayard, we’re always in pursuit of the “inner book” –  that phantasmagorical object that every reader lives to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading….

Pursuing that inner book is what reading’s all about for Bayard, and he thinks we shouldn’t use up our reading time on things we think we ought to read.  An expert skimmer and sampler (or reader of book blogs) will see where the book fits in his own book-world, and as Bayard shows by his comments on books he’s only skimmed, will get you through any literary conversation.  And if you should meet the author, all you need is praise without detail.

And speaking of book clubs, this would make a very interesting choice!


*Thanks to Chicken Lady for drawing our attention to this book.



11 thoughts on “The inner book: Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read*.

  1. “Each of us lives in a private world of all the books we’ve read/skimmed/heard about.” I think this is quite true. I remember watching a movie that I knew I’d never seen before. I had this weird feeling that I knew what was going to happen next. I eventually realized I had read the book may years ago – long forgotten but still embedded in my long term memory.

    1. Yes, I’ve had that experience too. But it’s interesting to take it further as he does, that we fit any new book we read into that world of books. Sometimes you’re quite consciously judging and measuring it against other books you’ve read, sometimes you don’t even realise that you’re doing that.

      1. Thank you Gert! I’ve recently read part of “How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been, ” by Bayard as well. If I”ve even read part, that qualifies me to talk about it, right? That one is also about inner spaces, and constructed meanings.

        What I found most interesting about books you haven’t read was his perspective on what “reading” a book means — even if you did “read” every word, you filtered it through the previous words read, and through what you had for dinner, and as you say, your inner world constructed of other books. Feels a little like a hall of mirrors, but a pleasantly dizzying one.

          1. In the midst of unpacking and shelving books from move. Lingering over some diary entries of Anis Nin, setting aside a large quantity of self help books for donation, and passing an hour on the watercolors of southern New Jersey marshes of Ray Ellis. From reading this fine article/review of yours and the ideas posed in the commentary, I consider what is at play when first opening the cover, or returning to a well worn often read chapter or reference. It really does make a case for exploring a far ranging variety of subjects. And the very powerful potential of influence literature can have on our lives. Thank you. 🍁

            1. Ah, you’re a self-help junkie? Sounds as if you may have kicked the habit though. I love the idea of settling into a new house with a good read as you put the books on the shelves.

              1. Yes indeed. Today I found “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”…and recall reading it when it was considered quite a racy bit of a book…perusing it today laughing at what all the fuss was about. 🍁

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