“It is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives,” observed the French critic Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text. After all, Barthes asks, “has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages).”
But what about the books we have not read?
Another Frenchman, the University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard, has written a new book about how we can engage those books that we haven’t read, or only skimmed, or perhaps only heard about. Bayard has us rethink books as part of a cultural system:
A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.
Read Maria Popova’s excellent review of Bayard’s book here.