On Unread Books


On Books


Science Library of Upper Lusatia in Görlitz, Germany. Photo: Ralf Roletschek

I recall, though my recollection may be faulty, a magnificent article by Giorgio Manganelli explaining how a sophisticated reader can know whether a book is worth reading even before he opens it. He wasn’t referring to the capacity often required of a professional reader, or a keen and discerning reader, to judge from an opening line, from two pages glanced at random, from the index, or often from the bibliography, whether or not a book is worth reading. This, I say, is simply experience. No, Manganelli was talking about a kind of illumination, a gift that he was evidently and paradoxically claiming to have.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, is not about how you might know not to read a book but how you can happily talk about a book you haven’t read, even to your students, even when it’s a book of extraordinary importance. His calculation is scientific. Good libraries hold several millions of books: even if we read a book a day, we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle. On the other hand, any Italian who’s had a good secondary education knows perfectly well that they can participate in a discussion, let’s say, on Matteo Bandello, Francesco Guicciardini, Matteo Boiardo, on the tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri, or on Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian, knowing only the name and something about the critical context, but without ever having read a word.

And critical context is Bayard’s crucial point. He declares without shame that he has never read James Joyce’s Ulysses, but that he can talk about it by alluding to the fact that it’s a retelling of the Odyssey, which he also admits never having read in its entirety, that it is based on an internal monologue, that the action unfolds in Dublin during a single day, et cetera. “As a result,” he writes, “I often find myself alluding to Joyce without the slightest anxiety.” Knowing a book’s relationship to other books often means you know more about it than you do on actually reading it.

Bayard shows how, when you read certain neglected books, you realize you’re familiar with their contents because they have been read by others who have talked about them, quoted from them, or have moved in the same current of ideas. He makes some extremely amusing observations on a number of literary texts that refer to books never read, including Robert Musil, Graham Greene, Paul Valéry, Anatole France, and David Lodge. And he does me the honor of devoting a whole chapter to my The Name of the Rose, where William of Baskerville demonstrates a familiarity with the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics while holding it in his hands for the very first time. He does so for the simple reason that he infers what it says from some other pages of Aristotle. I’m not citing this passage out of mere vanity, though, as we shall see at the end of this article.

An intriguing aspect of this book, which is less paradoxical than it might seem, is that we also forget a very large percentage of the books we have actually read, and indeed we build a sort of virtual picture of them that consists not so much of what they say but what they have conjured up in our mind. So that if someone who hasn’t read a book cites nonexistent passages or situations from it, we are ready to believe that they are in the book.

Bayard is not interested so much in people reading other people’s books, as in the idea—and here is the voice of the psychoanalyst rather than the professor of literature—that every reading or nonreading or imperfect reading must have a creative aspect, and that, to put it simply, readers have to do their own bit. And he looks forward to the prospect of a school where students “invent” books they don’t have to read, since talking about unread books is a means to self-awareness.

Except that Bayard demonstrates how, when someone talks about a book he or she hasn’t read, even those who have read it don’t realize what he or she has said about it is wrong. Toward the end of his book, he admits he has introduced three false pieces of information in his summaries of The Name of the Rose, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, and David Lodge’s Changing Places. The amusing thing is that, when I read them, I immediately noticed the error regarding Graham Greene, was doubtful about David Lodge, but didn’t notice the error in my own book. This probably means that I didn’t read Bayard’s book properly, or alternatively, and both he and my readers would be entitled to suspect this, that I merely skimmed through it. But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.


Excerpted from Chronicles of a Liquid Society by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon.  Copyright © 2016 by La nave di Teseo Editore, Milano. English translation copyright © 2017 by Richard Dixon. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor.