In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read Pierre Bayard argues that reading books should never get in the way of writing. Probably. I say probably because this book is—as Mandy Brown puts it—“very French.” Following Bayard down his various twisted alleyways1 of thought was an enjoyable exercise.
He opens by cataloguing four modes of not reading:
- Privileging the position of a book—how it relates to other books in the library—over its contents (the library in the broadest sense)
- Drawing from others’s thoughts on a book to understand what ours would probably be
- Reducing books to their essence through judicious skimming
- Acknowledging that we forget more about books than we ever take away, making those takeaways all the more potent
Building from these, Bayard provides his perspective on how all reading and writing is ultimately personal. Each reader takes from a book their own ideas, usually a reflection of their inner thoughts. To produce great personal writing requires rejecting the constraints of cultural thought. To be sure, we need to experience enough of culture—enough of a book—to know ourselves, but once we’ve hit that understanding we ought to put the book down and start writing. Read to write.
If you care about reading and writing, read this book. Or skim it. Or don’t read it, and take from these words here what you need for your own writing. Doubtless you’ll understand Bayard differently than I, and that’s precisely the point.