How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

(New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 185

I tend to be rather methodical in my reading of books, and I treat it as a discrete activity: a book is either read or not read, and I need to actually read (or listen to) a book to check it off and put it on the list. This book challenges that notion and rightly observes that we relate to most books through some level of non-reading.

Books are just containers for ideas, and it is the ideas that matter much more than the containers we pass them around in. Reading this has challenged me to change my mental model for "reading" from a linear march of completion to a cyclical process that is perpetually active for every book I have ever heard of.

I can't let the goal of "reading" get in the way of spending some time with a book to get to know it and place it alongside other books in the collective library. My notes will transform into more "evergreen" notes for books that are started as early in the process as possible and record thoughts throughout the journey. I don't have use for the cheeky premise of this book to handle delicate social situations surrounding books, but it has certainly transformed my relationship to books and reading.



  • Our society imposes an "obligation to read [thoroughly]" from canonical texts in order to talk about them --> this is just lies and hypocrisy (xvi)
  • Reading is not a binary activity, and the categories of "non-reading" he enumerates also point to the layers of truly studying and understanding an important text (xix)

Ways of Not Reading

Chapter 1: Book You Don't Know

Summary: We need to distinguish between the content of a book and its location, or its relation and connections to other books in the collective library. We are all non-readers of the vast majority of books, and yet we can be cultivated by actively mastering the relations between books we haven't read.

  • Not reading is our primary way of relating to books (cf The Tail End (WBW) from SpaceX times and Matt B)
  • There is an opportunity cost to reading books, both in time and perspective (so choose general books that give you perspective?) (8)
  • The reframes "cultivation" not as familiarity with any particular book, but the understanding of the location of a book relative to other books in the collective library (10-12)

Chapter 2: Books You Have Skimmed

Summary: Our goal is to maintain a broad perspective, both within a collective library rather than a single book, and within a book. He gives the example of Paul Valéry to discuss the importance of other's views for forming our own and a warning to not get lost in a single book.

  • Skimming is the most efficient way to absorb books, respecting their depth without getting lost in the weeds
  • Paul Valéry speaking about Proust is the example of this
  • Other people's view are a prerequisite for forming your own (18)
  • He argues that it's "dangerous" to read a book in too much detail which will damage our perspective or override our uniqueness as a writer: I disagree with this (31)

Chapter 3: Books You Have Heard Of

Summary: We can speak in detail about books we have never held based on what others have said about them (cf Umberto Eco). The "real" book is hidden under the reconstructions we have all made for our own purposes.

  • "Cultural literacy involves the dual capacity to situate books in the collective library and to situate yourself within each book" (32)

Chapter 4: Books You Have Forgotten

Summary: Reading is an inevitable process of forgetting, as Montaigne's Essays lament. When we talk about books we have read, we are really talking about our approximate recollections of books. As time passes, all books—"read" and unread—will be equally unknown to us.

  • Reading is the inevitable process of forgetting
  • "When we talk about books it would be more accurate to say that we are talking about our approximate recollections of books, rearranged as a function of current circumstances." (48)
  • Montaigne: he is separated from the earlier incarnation of himself by the defects of his memory, and his readings of his notes represent so many attempts at reunification (53)

Literary Confrontations

Chapter 5: Encounters in Society

Summary: He uses Greene's novel about talking to an audience about a book you have never read to introduce the "inner library", the "collective library" that has left a deep impression on us. Our inner libraries often don't overlap, so we're left speaking past each other in a "dialogue of the deaf". Or we end up hurt because we are the sum of the books that have mas us who we are.

  • Authority is an essential element in our discussions of books
  • "Thus it is that in truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture...We are the sum of these accumulated books." (73)

Chapter 6: Encounters With Professors

Summary: We also have our "inner book" unconscious representations of books that overlap with our personal expectations. Everyone has their own inner book, meaning we aren't talking about the same thing.

  • We selectively "edit" a book as we read it: "in the places where the book does not conform to their expectations, the alarming passages are either ignored, or they undergo a transformation that allows the largest possible overlap between the inner book and the actual book" (83)

Chapter 7: Encounters With the Writer

Summary: To complement an author tell him you like it while maintaining the greatest possible degree of ambiguity.

  • Be vague in your feedback to an author if you don't want to hurt their feelings: praise it without going into detail (paragraph at bottom of 98)

Chapter 8: Encounters With Someone You Love

Summary: The Film Groundhog Day to illustrate how our understanding of books are really fragments reworked by our private fantasies.

  • True: "In becoming interested in others, he himself becomes interesting"

Ways of Behaving

Chapter 9: Not Being Ashamed

Summary: The third type of library is the "virtual library" where books are discussed with others, an activity easily separable from reading. There's no such thing as an isolated book—it only has meaning relative to other books. "Cultural literacy without gaps" is an oppressive expectation to free ourselves from.

  • Reading and talking about books are completely separable activities
  • There is no such thing as an isolated book: it exists in a library

Chapter 10: Imposing Your Ideas

Summary: Books are mobile objects rather than fixed texts.

  • The virtual library is particularly plastic

Chapter 11: Inventing Books

Summary: I skipped this chapter...

Chapter 12: Speaking About Yourself

Summary: He cites Oscar Wilde to suggest a liberation from reading to free you to be original in your writing.

  • Oscar Wilde: "an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has not time to think"
  • Oscar Wilde: "It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient."
  • "Wilde's Paradox": a book stimulates our thinking but can also separate him from what is most original (178). I disagree: read good books and don't worry about being original.

Topic: Reading


New words

  • Metonymy: A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States government or of the sword for military power.

Created: 2021-06-01
Updated: 2023-01-23-Mon