12 March 2009

Never Tell a Lie; Never Swat a Fly

Last week we established that a good number of people in Britain will lie about which books they’ve read. People here lie, too, but we don’t have a readers’ survey to prove it.

The next day a local bookseller handed me a copy of Pierre Bayard’s book “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” In his overeducated yet witty way Monsieur Bayard unpeels the deeper layers of meaning.

He claims “Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the counter gesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of NOT picking up and NOT opening all the other books in the universe.”

You may remember the TV show Cosmos with late astronomer Carl Sagan. At one point Sagan strolls along vast stacks of books in a stage-set library, pointing out the mathematical impossibility of living long enough to read the books in even one well-stocked library.

In “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” Professor Bayard makes the case that simply understanding where a book fits into the overall culture may be just as important as having actually read the book.

“For instance, he writes, “I’ve never ‘read’ Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ and it’s quite plausible that I never will. This means that I feel perfectly comfortable when ‘Ulysses’ comes up in conversation, because I can situate it with relative precision in relation to other books... And as a result, I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.”

This startling insight from an author who is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris, a psychoanalyst, and author of many other books.

Bookseller Paul Takushi in Sacramento wrote: “Hi Tony. The only books I claim to have read, but have not (at least, not the ENTIRE book), are most of whatever’s on the current bestseller list and books for author events. I lie about bestsellers in order to make the sale to people I don’t know and will never meet again...

“...I never lie within earshot of co-workers, store regulars, friends, or family because they’ll just turn to that customer and expose me...

“When I (used to tell customers) I hadn’t read a certain title, the look of horror... or disgust on their faces made me feel insecure and inadequate about being a bookseller. But c’mon! You couldn’t read every dang book in the store anyway...

Paul continued, “I (once attended)... an education session at a (booksellers’ convention).

“(The speaker told the booksellers), ‘When customers come in looking for a book on a certain subject, pick one off the shelf, put it in their hands, and tell them that the book is the best book in the store on that subject, even if you’ve never read it. When... they ask you if it’s any good, just say yes...

“A bookseller in the audience immediately piped up: ‘But don’t you think that lying to your customers is bad for your business in the long run?’

“(The speaker) replied, ‘Oh yes, of course... BUT, only if that person finds out that you lied to them. AND, you’re not going to just hand them crap, right? I mean, it’s YOUR store – there IS no crap in it, right?

Paul’s letter continues, “...I sat there stunned. Then I began to see the somewhat twisted logic in what he was saying... Half the audience thought he was a total ass. The other half sat there like me, thinking, ‘Hmmm...’ ”

“Don’t worry Tony,” Paul concluded. “I would never lie to you.”


“How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by Pierre Bayard with a foreword by Francine Prose. Bloomsbury hard cover $19.95. ISBN 9781596914698. The $14 paperback will be published in September, 2009. This book is witty in a subtle, cumulative way. Highly recommended.

Susan in Maine wrote:

"Out of curiosity, I went to those hundred books and I've actually read 51 of them; don't ask whether I remember the content of all of the books I've read however. It did strike me that there were a surprising number of Terry Pratchett titles. I haven't read any of Terry Pratchett (that I recall). As to the 10 you've listed in your "column," alas, only 4. Fun observations. In passing, I don't recall that in my youth, seeming smarter to attract a mate, at least for women, was encouraged...."

Jane in Mendocino wrote:

Hello Tony!

Concerning “How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read” by Pierre Bayard...

If you haven't read Proust, this book can help you out. If you have read Proust, you will love this book. It is very funny, culturally astute, and it will inspire you to read -- at least I was inspired. It is truly a book for those who love books.

It's not just about literature & our shared experiences with literature -- there's a fair amount of other stuff going on. It's a book that you can dip into again & again.

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