In his book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, the French literature professor and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, pretends, or at least this seems to be his purpose up to one point, to make us free ourselves of the bargain of a “culture without gaps”, utopia promoted by education and inherited from our parents.
The essay is a way of destroying the collective myths surrounding the idea of literature and culture and of what means to be a cultivated, well-read person. Bayard bases his meditation on these matters on the idea that culture is not a lineal form of accumulating knowledge, but it rather means having acquired the necessary mechanisms and having developed sharp senses of knowing how to orient and guide yourself through the vast catalog of all books available. No book can be analysed separately as it gains meaning and significance firstly in a small context – author’s works, social context of a certain time and space, etc – and then in a broader context that could be defined as the whole literary big picture as seen in that particular moment. This way, the creation and interpretation process are continuously and infinite.
Bayard talks about a “collective library” that contains all books available and that serves as reference to establish connections between a book and others. When I came up this phrase, I imaged the “collective library” as a huge library with shelves where each book is placed in order to reflect all the influences, echoes and dialogues with other books, authors and ideas that contributed to its making.
Another idea on which Bayard elaborates is that of “one’s inner library”, defined as a “the set of mythic representations… that come between the reader and any new piece of writing”. All the books we’ve read, skimmed or heard of make up our inner library that instead of being full of accurate facts is rather a collection of experiences, of our memories, sensations and emotions triggered by reading or skimming their paragraphs. Confronted with a new book, we immediate associate it with our past experiences and in fact, what we do is creating a new book that immediately integrates in our “inner library”. To me, that’s the beauty and the most attractive part of literature: no book written by an author’s is a sole creation; all the readers of a particular book make their own book starting from what they read. This new books incorporates their particular way of absorbing it, interpreting it, giving it personal meanings and immediately melts into their inner library.
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is full of intertextuality, setting dialogues with many other books that come to illustrate Bayard’s point of view. The author tries to build a guilty-free approach regarding reading and non-reading and to encourage creativity – understood as a way of filling in the gaps of what we have not read. The essay is nothing less than a complex meditation on the theory of literature, seeking to establish a new paradigm in which literature, art and culture can be conceived.