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How to Talk about Books you Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

There are too many books; among those worth reading at all, most are best skimmed; others are best interpreted via interpreters; you only see part of the possible meaning of the books you've read; and you've forgotten almost anything about even those. So relax and talk about the 'virtual' book, the idea of it, the version of it that you and your interlocutor inadvertently generate between you.

The title sounds like vacuous click-bait (indeed, a friend who later wrote his thesis on Bayard initially thought I was recommending something like this fluff). But it is instead all of the following: a thrilling act of virtuoso postmodern over-reading, a serious look at intellectual status and neurosis, a really interesting phenomenology of books, a glowing review of a dozen writers (including my beloved-but-low-status Greene and Lodge), and sheer backwards-land satire.

I found it liberating, not because I go round pretending to have read things (a free-rider in literary conversations), but because by the end of my arts degree I had found out, to my surprise and dismay, that high culture is 90% bollocks. Or, maybe: that arts culture is shallow and irrational, a thick and grasping vine overgrowing the lovely lonely tower of great writing and painting.

Bayard (or anyway his cheeky narrator) help unhook you from the blind devotion of the reading classes, and lets you face books on your own terms, sceptical and skimming and agentic. I was freed - and immediately started to get technical.

And 'Bayard's' style - pointing out the inconvenient but undeniable things about a cherished phenomenon - now reminds me of the arch-rationalist Robin Hanson. Which is where I went next.

  • In one sentence: Relax, it's a game.
  • Number of reads: 2 since 2011.
  • Galef type:
    Values 2 - thought experiments for you to reflect on how you feel about something, &
    Style 2 - learn a style of thinking by studying the author’s approach to the world Style 3 - tickle your aesthetic sense in a way that obliquely makes you a more interesting, generative thinker
  • To be read when: teenaged; burdened by the thought of the millions of unread books; before going to a posh party.