As is fitting, I’m going to talk about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read before I finish reading it. I did read enough to know that the book isn’t “limited to developing techniques for awkward literary confrontations”. That is, it isn’t “here’s what you should say when you want to sound smart about a book that you haven’t read”. Instead, true to the trend set by academics publishing with general-interest, commercial publishing houses, the book carries a somewhat more scandalous title than the message it eventually delivers. (Doctor Bayard is a professor of literature at Paris University, and the US edition of his book is put out by Bloomsbury.)
How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read is humorous but serious. It delivers sections on “ways of not reading” (hint: it’s not just not having moved your eyes over the pages of a book); it cites examples of literary luminaries like Paul Valery, Umberto Eco, and Graham Greene to support its author’s points (and those are only the names that I recognize! I’m not going to tell you the ones that I don’t, but true to form, I will nod knowingly when you bring them up); it’s learned even if such learning is lightly worn (as light as a French academic can bear).
Of course, there’s a whole art to titling books. I suppose an author wants his title to be intriguing/emotive/salacious enough to get readers to at least pull his book from the shelf and check out the dust jacket. On the other hand, he wouldn’t want the title to be so misleading that after having pulled the book from the shelf, the readers will only plunk it back down, none too gently, for utterly not being what they expected. In journalism, a lot of times reporters don’t write the titles of their pieces, leaving the art for such work in the hands of their editors. I wonder in how many cases does the same division of labor apply in book publishing.
In any case, Dr. Bayard and his editor have good reason to pat themselves on the back: How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a bestseller in France, and has already garnered that most sincere of flattery, a rejoinder in the form of a book called How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.