Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote myself to it, I have often found myself in the delicate situation of having to express my thoughts on books I haven't read.
Because I teach literature at the university level, there is, in fact, no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven't even opened. It' s true that this is also the case for the majority of my students, but if even one of them has read the text I'm discussing, there is a risk that at any moment my class will be disrupted and I will find myself humiliated.
In addition, I am regularly called on to discuss publications in my books and articles, since these for the most part concern the books and articles of others. This exercise is even more problematic, since unlike spoken statements-which can include imprecision without consequence-written commentaries leave traces and can be verified.
As a result of such all-too-familiar situations, I believe I am well positioned, if not to offer any real lesson on the subject, at least to convey a deeper understanding of the non-reader's experience and to undertake a meditation on this forbidden subject.
It is unsurprising that so few texts extol the virtues of nonreading. In deed, to describe your experience in this area, as I will attempt here, demands a certain courage, for doing so clashes inevitably with a whole series of internalized constraints. Three of these, at least, are crucial. The first of these constraints might be called the obligation to read. We still live in a society, on the decline though it may be, where reading remains the object of a kind of worship. This worship applies particularly to a number of canonical texts-the list varies according to the circles you move in-which it is practically forbidden not to have read if you want to be taken seriously.
The second constraint, similar to the first but nonetheless distinct, might be called the obligation to read thoroughly. If it's frowned upon not to read, it's almost as bad to read quickly or to skim, and especially to say so. For example, it's virtually unthinkable for literary intellectuals to acknowledge that they have flipped through Proust's work without having read it in its entirety-though this is certainly the case for most of them.
The third constraint concerns the way we discuss books. There is a tacit understanding in our culture that one must read a book in order to talk about it with any precision. In my experience, however, it's totally possible to carry on an engaging conversation about a book you haven't read- including, and perhaps especially, with someone else who hasn't read it either. Moreover, as I will argue, it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven't read it in its entirety-or even opened it. Throughout this book, I will insist on the risks of reading-so frequently underestimated-for anyone who intends to talk about books, and even more so for those who plan to review them.
The effect of this repressive system of obligations and prohibitions has been to generate a widespread hypocrisy on the subject of books that we actually have read. I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex, in which it's as difficult to obtain accurate information. Among specialists, mendacity is the rule, and we tend to lie in proportion to the significance of the book under consideration. Although I've read relatively little myself, I'm familiar enough with certain books-here, again, I'm thinking of Proust-to be able to evaluate whether my colleagues are telling the truth when they talk about his work, and to know that in fact, they rarely are.
These lies we tell to others are first and foremost lies we tell ourselves, for we have trouble acknowledging even to ourselves that we haven't read the books that are deemed essential. An d here, just as in so many other domains of life, we show an astonishing ability to reconstruct the past to better conform to our wishes.
Our propensity to lie when we talk about books is a logical consequence of the stigma attached to non-reading, which in turn arises from a whole network of anxieties rooted (no doubt) in early childhood. If we wish, then, to learn how to emerge unscathed from conversations about books we haven't read, it will be necessary to analyze the unconscious guilt that an admission of non-reading elicits. It is to help assuage such guilt, at least in part, that is the goal of this book.
Excerpted from How To Talk About Books You Haven't ReadCopyright 2007 Les Editions Minuit. English translation copyright 2007 by Jeffrey Mehlman. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.