How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (review: 3/5)

The title of Pierre Bayard‘s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a bit misleading. Don’t get your hopes up for any on-the-ground tactics for escaping awkward conversation. Bayard spends a couple hundred pages, illustrated mostly with stories and examples from his specialty in French literature, talking about why you shouldn’t feel awkward in the first place.
Assuming “cultivation” is a worthy goal, you have to remember that “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.”

It boils down like this: There are a lot of books out there. You can’t read them all. As soon as you begin to read, you begin to forget what you’re reading. What you actually remember is incomplete, anyway, and the way you remember it changes. Lastly, the way we actually use our incomplete, mutable memories of books varies from time to time, place to place, person to person, conversation to conversation.

In the end, Bayard says, “what we talk about is not the books themselves, but the substitute objects we create for the occasion.” This makes me think of the idea of social objects in marketing.

Hugh MacLeod: “The interesting thing about the Social Object is the not the object itself, but the conversations that happen around them.”

Compare Bayard: “The books themselves are not at stake; they have been replaced by other intermediary objects that have no content in themselves, and which are defined solely by the unstable social and psychological forces that bombard them.”

There’s also the interesting idea of ambiguity when these discussions come up:

Like words, books, in representing us, also deform what we are. In talking about books, we find ourselves exchanging not so much cultural objects as the very parts of ourselves we need to shore up our coherence during these threats to our narcissistic selves. Our feelings of shame arise because our very identity is imperiled by these exchanges, whence the imperative that the virtual space in which we stage them remain marked by ambiguity and play.

Ambiguity and play comes out because most of our conversation isn’t about books per se, it’s about situating ourselves to each other. It’s about relating. This brings to mind a Chuck Klosterman essay on why we like the music we like:

When someone asks me what kind of music I like, he is (usually) attempting to use this information to deduce things about my personality… But here’s the problem: This premise is founded on the belief that the person you’re talking with consciously knows why he appreciates those specific things or harbors those specific feelings. It’s also predicated on the principle that you know why you like certain sounds or certain images, because that self-awareness is how we establish the internal relationship between a) what someone loves and b) who someone is.

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