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How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

By Pierre Bayard. Bloomsbury


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How much do you read each week? How many pages are you expected to read? How many books, papers, reports, articles, e-mails and instruction sheets are you expected, do you expect yourself to understand, comprehend, remember?

I teach reading at our local community college. Some, including some of my students, are often incredulous. "Don't they (Don't we) know how to read already? After all, I can recite this passage just fine..."

But what does it mean to read? One of the first things reading teachers teach is that reading does not equal decoding (knowing how to pronounce words). Reading means comprehending (understanding) what the words mean.

Yet, outside of the classroom, one of the first things almost everyone learns is that there are many ways to read something, anything: a sign, a face, a place, a time, an event, a movie, a book. We do this, mostly, by reading context as much if not more than the text.

Who wrote it? When was it published? What was happening in that time, that place, that moment? What movement does this belong to? What is it set against? What do others think? What can we imply? You get the idea.

And if we're honest with ourselves and each other, if we truly care enough to think about it at all, we do learn how to talk about what we haven't read. Indeed, sometimes we must do this out of necessity. Either because we haven't read what we've been asked to or want to talk about. Or because we didn't really understand what we read or what to think about what we read. For although having read something presupposes remembering what we have read, memory, as we know, follows its own rules.

Taking both memory and necessity into account, in How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Pierre Bayard writes, "... To talk about unread books is to be present at the birth of the creative subject. In this inaugural moment when books and self separate, the reader, free at last from the weight of the words of others, may find the strength to invent his own text, and in that moment, he becomes a writer himself."

Now, like me, Pierre Bayard is a college instructor. But not at a California community college, at the University of Paris! He speaks French! He even wrote this book in French! And he doesn't teach reading either. He teaches philosophy!

So what does he know? Him with his collective libraries, inner books and screen memories.

Sure, I know how to talk about books I haven't read. Don't you?



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