HAVE I read this book? Sort of. Pierre Bayard is a Professor of French Literature in Paris and a Lacanian analyst who has written many paradoxical works of criticism, about subjects such as digression in Proust, the use of literature in psychoanalysis, the dialogue of the deaf that critics have conducted about Hamlet, and working out Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? He likes to promote "le delire d'interpretation", the idea that there can never be any end to the different readings of any book.
Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? was published at the start of the year in France and has been a huge success there. Now it's been translated without the question mark.
It's a pert little volume in three parts.
In the first, he observes uncontroversially that our knowledge of books is always partial and tenuous, even when it is not completely hearsay. In the second, he describes some exemplary "literary confrontations" in which people are seen to be talking about books they haven't read, ranging from the strong opinions of the Tiv tribe of West Africa when the plot of Hamlet is described to them they think Gertrude should never have waited so long to re-marry to the special way the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day is able to catch up on the books he doesn't know in order to seduce his girl.
Lastly, Bayard gives us his tips on how to do it all better how not to be ashamed of not having read a book, how to impose our opinions about unread books on others, how to make up what we think about unread books to such an extent that we become in effect creative writers ourselves.
As part of his own admission that he hasn't read everything he discusses, Bayard's devised a waggish system of symbols, running from UB ("book unknown to me"), SB ("book I have skimmed"), HB ("book I have heard about"), to FB ("book I have forgotten"), followed by a system of pluses and minuses to indicate his opinion of the book, whatever category it falls into. It will be seen that in this system skimming is the best that he thinks can truthfully ever be achieved. Hamlet he rates SB and HB ++, his own Who Killed Roger Ackroyd FB+.
Bayard is, of course, right that simply to say one has either read a book or not is false to experience. We do all skim; we do all hold opinions about books that we can place among the other books we know, without actually having read them.
As a prize example of the phenomenon, he quotes the suave tribute to Proust that Paul Valery published soon after Proust's death. "Like most people who talk about Proust, Valery had never read him." Even if we have read a book, we forget most of it almost at once. We even forget whether or not we have ever actually read a book at all, for what it's worth.
In public libraries, lots of genre fiction will be found to have lines of little marks or initials scrawled inside the flap by previous readers, to warn themselves in future that they've already taken out this title. That we fail to retain almost everything we read is a phenomenon best described by Montaigne, who in his essay "On Books" admits: "I have more than once happened to pick up again, thinking it new and unknown to me, a book which I had carefully read several years earlier and scribbled all over with my notes. …