How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Readwas tough reading for me. I held off writing this to the very end to avoid the real possibility that I may have misunderstood Bayard’s project. I did not want to fall into the same category of people who misjudge books simply by its cover. One only has to look no further than the one-star reviews of books found in popular online retailers such as Amazon to see that many readers are guilty of this.
For example, there was a book titled The Benedict Optionby Rod Dreher that got published last year. The subtitle was “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” This book received rave reviews, some positive and some negative. It quickly got on the New York Times Bestseller list. David Brooks, a writer for New York Times applauded the book and said “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That is high praise. However, most Christian leaders I talked to had a different and rather unfair critique of the book. One of them said the book espoused a radical retreat from society which impugned the Christian’s calling to being salt and light. This inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. If one had simply read the book, he or she would learn that a temporary retreat, a “going back to basics” sort of approach, which the author clearly advocated, that refreshes and empowers believers enough to be effective agents of change for the kingdom. It is disappointing that many of Bayard’s tips on how to talk about books one has never read might lead us down this same path.
The title I chose for this post is the word Obfuscation. This is not a very endearing characterization of a person, especially for academics. The Merriam-Webster definition of this word is “to throw into shadow; to obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.” As bad as it is, in my opinion, the author is perfectly comfortable with this. He said so himself. In an NPR interview Bayard said he was comfortable “living in the gray.”1In many places in his book he writes about “inner books,” “inner libraries,” “secret texts” a mobility to meaning that one wonders if there is a point to reading anything at all.
It is one thing to acknowledge that there are gray areas in ascertaining the truth of a matter, but it is quite different to be settled in it. The flaw in Bayard is that in describing the lack of apodictic certainty of truth he has prescribed the lack of any truth. In other words, just because a thing is difficult to grasp, now therefore there is nothing to grasp. That does not follow. A good example of the chaos and folly that attend this kind of thinking is illustrated by Bayard in the game of Humiliation.
“The game thus consist in humiliating yourself as much as possible: the more you humiliate yourself, the more likely you are to win. But there is an additional twist, which is that victory also depends on sincerity. To win, you must not only give the name of a well-known book, but also convince the others that you have told the truth about not having read it. If you give the name of a book that is too well know, such that it is actually implausible for you not to have read it, the other players have the right to reject your statement. The chance of winning is thus proportional to the players’ trust in the person confessing his ignorance, and so also in proportion to the genuineness of the player’s humiliation”2
Notice that there really is no objective to this silly parlor game. It only ends in chaos since there is no grounding for truth. Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false. That’s a logical order and cannot be breached. Otherwise we all start with skepticism and that’s an unlivable world. In this game no one wins and it only ends in futility and destruction. In fact we do find that one of the professors thinking he won the game actually lost the game, even more, his reputation and his job.
If there is another alternative to how we can talk about books we have not read, allow me to suggest one. This advice comes from my personal experience having managed a bookstore for over seventeen years. The first step is to contact publishers of books that fit your interests, and get on their mailing list. Indicate that you want to start receiving their catalogs which usually gets printed a few times a year. For example, if your interests lie in Christian academic titles, you’ll want to obtain catalogs from IVP Academic, Eerdman’s, Baker Academic, etc. Not only do you get to know about books that have yet to be printed, but the descriptions, table of contents and other promotional material contained in these catalogs will be surprisingly enough to engage in fruitful discussions about a myriad of topics. Collecting and perusing these catalogs actually do start to create the real inner library—similar to the one Bayard talks about. Except this one has its basis in reality.