is the title of a book I actually, ahem, read.
The premise is intriguing: a book about how to talk about books you haven’t read. The premise is not actually what the book is about. That is, it is not solely a how-to book, though there is some of that.
Instead, it’s a rumination on what our actual experience is of reading, remembering, and talking about books, and something of a polemic about how we should read and teach literature.
The structure of the book is simple: Bayard posits a thesis and then uses a piece of literature or pop culture to prove his point. It’s an easy read and an entertaining one.
So, what is Bayard’s central thesis? Books are not pure, reliable, or fixed. So why are we pretending that they are? And, why do we pretend to know books that we don’t?
In fact, Bayard would argue that we do know these books, in a way.
Bayard sets up libraries and books in threes. First, the libraries that we all possess/are a part of:
- Collective library: this is the library that we share with members of our culture. This library is not just a repository, but influences the meaning of every book we (don’t) read. Our mastery of it is not a complete (yet obviously impossible) knowledge of the books themselves, but of the relationships between books within it.
- Inner library: this is a subset of the collective library around which an individual personality “is constructed, and which then shapes each person’s individual relationship to books and to other people.”
- Virtual library: “the realm in which books are discussed,” “a mobile sector” of the collective library and is at “the point of intersection” of other people’s inner libraries. A book club, a journal, a conversation. He calls it virtual because the books being discussed are in fact not real: they are being created out of the misremembering and outright lying of the participants.
Then there are the different types of books:
- Screen book: it “consists in large part of what the reader knows or believes he knows about the book, and thus to the comments exchanged about it.” Since we are always forgetting what we read, Bayard argues that the screen book is less about what the book actually contains than what we believe it contains.
- Inner book: it is the baggage that we come into the reading context with that shapes our reading without ever realizing it. Our inner books “create a system for receiving other texts and participate both in their reception and reorganization.” Again, Bayard is arguing that there is nothing out there called “a book”: we create the book (screen book) depending on our filters (previous inner books).
- Phantom book: it is the produce of screen books interacting in the virtual library — another unreal book, but a different one than we would have created without the additional meaning provided by someone else.
OK, enough with the terminology. The gist? It is a fun and honest assessment of what we do as readers and as discussants. More importantly, for this teacher of books, is his argument at the end: that we are teaching our students incorrectly. That we are teaching them an undue reverence for the “truth” of books, when everyone knows that we lie about books all the time. That when we talk/write about books, we are creating books and are therefore creative: by emphasizing rote memorization and singular meanings, we are not teaching our students how to be creative.
It’s all very interesting. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how I would want to teach it. Obviously, with this title, I might be fired before I even hit the classroom, but I recommend it: it will make you think about your own relationship with books and also perhaps make you a bit more honest about that relationship.