Il existe plus d’une manière de ne pas lire, dont la plus radicale est de n’ouvrir aucun livre.
– PIerre Bayard, Comment Parler Des Livres Que L’On N’A Pas Lus? 2007
The book I posted on yesterday? I just bought it.
I grabbed the clipping about it from the International Herald Tribune, looked up the French title on Amazon.fr and wrote it on the clipping, then headed up the street to the bookstore. It’s about a two minute walk from door to door. After a cursory look around I showed my clipping to a young woman who works at the store. Ah — juste la, she said pleasantly, pointing to the display table next to her. Two copies left. It’s a classic French-looking book: paperback, plain type font, no cover art, no endorsements on the back — just a 1-paragraph précis. I head for the checkout line, hand over my debit card, punch in my PIN, get my receipt for 15 euros, and, book in hand, out the door I go.
I take it home and look at it. It’s a short book — only 162 pages. That’s encouraging. The last time a friend lent me a French book it was a meditation on poetry by Dominique de Villepin, the Prime Minister, something like 700 pages long. Imagine Dick Cheney writing a book about poetry. “I only read a hundred pages,” I admitted to Jöel when I returned it to him. “I have not read it,” he shrugged.
I flip to the front looking for the table of contents and it’s not there — that’s because French books put the table of contents at the back of the book. Also, the title and author written down the spine of the book? It’s flipped upside down compared to American books: the writing faces toward the right and reads from bottom to top as you look at it on the shelf. This book is part of the publisher’s Paradoxe series. Several other titles by Beyard are on the list: books about Maupassant, Freud, Proust, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare — psychoanalytic lit crit. Looking at the other authors’ names I recognize Deleuze, who has been the subject of a post at Church and Postmodern Culture where I’ve written a couple comments, including one alluding to the book that’s now in my hand. The other authors I’m pretty sure I don’t know, but I can tell they’d make good reading in pomo circles: The Aesthetics of Suicide; The Demon of Tautology; Listening: The Aesthetics of Espionage; The Dancer of Solitudes. The X of Y seems to be the formula for a good French pomo title. How about The Rigors of Caffeine? The Desolation of Masculinity? I should write those maybe. Then people could study Peyard’s book so they’ll know how not to read my books.
I turn to the beginning. It starts, as many books do, with a quote. This one is by Oscar Wilde: Je ne lis jamais un livre dont je dois écrire la critique; on se laisse tellement influencer. It’s not fair: Wilde wrote in English, but this quote is in French, so now I have to retranslate it back into English. “I never read a book dont I have to write a critique: one…” — what? “… it influences one too much”? Something like that: “I never read a book when I have to write a critique: it influences you too much.” LOL. Jokes aren’t nearly as funny when you have to work so hard to get them.
Next is a “Table of Abbreviations.” I don’t want to think about that right now. Next, the Prologue — skip that too for now. First section: Des Manières de Ne Pas Lire — Ways of Not Reading. First chapter: Les Livres Que L’On Ne Connaît Pas — The Books that One Does Not Know. French is big on the impersonal construction: one reads, one does. In English it sounds stilted. So the English title of the book: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read — “you haven’t read,” not the direct translation “one hasn’t read.”
Now the first line: Il existe plus d’une manière de ne pas lire, dont la plus radicale est de n’ouvrir aucun livre. What does it mean? “There exists more than one way not to read, dont the most radical is not to open aucun book.” I’ve got the gist, so I don’t really need the two words I’m not sure of. Dont appeared in the Wilde quote: there I decided it meant “when,” but that doesn’t quite work here. How about “of which”? Aucun I think means “any.” “There’s more than one way not to read, of which the most radical is not to open any book.” Pretty good. I’m looking up the two words.
The French-English dictionary doesn’t give a definition for dont; it refers me to paragraph 79. Where’s that? Way in the back, in special topics, just after conjugation of irregular verbs. Dont: of whom, of which, from which, on which, etc. So I’m good — it’s a multipurpose word, the meaning of which depends on context. Now, aucun: “no, none, not any.” So I’m good again, got it right the first try. “There’s more than one way not to read, the most radical of which is not to open any book.” Ha ha ha. This book is going to be a pomo laugh riot. Maybe by tomorrow I’ll be able to tell one about the second sentence.