How to Talk About a Pie You Haven’t Eaten, or Why Read a Book?

This week, we contemplate M. Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The argument, as I understand it, is that deep reading is passé.  You know, reading sentences, turning pages, dwelling in the life a book from beginning to end…waste of time.  Instead, M. Bayard promotes faking it.  You read a review or two, perhaps you even skim the cover or first page, you snatch a few bon mots out of the ether (net), and voilà. You can smartly join the conversation at a cocktail party.

I think I could use a martini.

Intellectual subterfuge is hardly new.  In fact, M. Bayard’s particular genius may be that he’s grabbed the copyright on skills known to undergraduates everywhere.  Surely even a few of them (not any that I know) would even agree with Bayard’s proposition that “it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety–or even opened it.”

In just this way, I hope to do justice to M. Bayard’s book.

Now I will grant that not every book is worth reading.  Not every book is even a book.  (I hear a certain Bieber has just signed a deal for his “memoirs”).  But I’m not quite sure the cocktail party standard will quite do it for me.

Let’s say, for example, that we substitute “eating” for “reading,” and “pie” for “book.”  So, the proposition becomes, “Eating pie is passé.  Instead, we’ll read a description of a pie, just enough to fake out our friends.”

Now this will work, no doubt.  You can go to your next dinner party and talk smartly about pies you have known.  Just to give you some material, here’s this:

  • It was peach, homemade, filled with sweet, juicy ripe Freestone peaches I picked at the local orchard.  I made the crust with two sticks of butter, put lots of cinnamon  in the peaches.  You should have smelled the house while it baked: all that hot buttery crust, bubbling peaches, warm cinnamon.  And the taste…mon dieu.  We ate it warm, a scoop of slow-churned vanilla ice cream melting slowly on top.

Now I ask you, would you rather read the Cliff’s Notes about pie?  Or eat the pie?

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19 Responses to “How to Talk About a Pie You Haven’t Eaten, or Why Read a Book?”

  1. Robert Braxton Says:

    All for slow reading, all the books I can find of one author at a time, currently Alice Miller. I find my reading list in the Washington Post obituaries daily.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Well, I’d wager that if we asked slow readers for recommendations of living writers, there’d be plenty of those, too. More than we can read before hitting the obituary pages ourselves.

  2. John Latham Says:

    Hi,
    I am becoming more and more a convert to slow reading. I’m reading ‘The American’ at the moment in its second version which seems slower and more complex the first. However, I can’t agree with this post. I would rather read about a pie (written by a good writer- whatever ‘good’ is) than eat it myself, because art (for me) is more interesting than life (if the two could be seen as separate). I think it would be important to read the Frenchman’s pie slowly and see if there is any merit in it. I have a friend who doesn’t finish books (or pies) quite as often as I do, due to his health, and he is not only sometimes more observant about books than I am, but also doesn’t waste his time finishing pies or books for the sake of it. I read ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters from cover to cover and he rightly dismissed it after 90 pages. I think I will give the audacious/provocative/ silly (I haven’t read it, only of it) French book to him as a gift.
    Thanks.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hello there! Well, the analogy does break down a bit when you consider the relative merits of art and pie. The point, though, is this: Is there a difference between hearing about a good book and reading it? Is there, in short, any real merit in reading it?

      For me, the difference is like the one between hearing about some yummy food and eating it yourself. In one, we experience the pleasures of taste and are nourished. In the other, we hear enough about it to discuss it…but we aren’t fed. Make sense?

      And of course, you’re right. Not every book merits reading, or reading all the way through. There are plenty of bad books in the world, and who has time? We throw out moldy food, too.

      • John Latham Says:

        I take some of your points and the thrust of your argument seems fair enough, but I would (as well as eating some humble pie- do you use that phrase in USA?) say that in literary debates we should always ‘know our enemy’ and grant him courtesies he may not show us. I am quite intrigued by this Frenchman’s thesis and think I should read it slowly before being critical of it. I would rather read reviews of some writers I know that I wouldn’t like than read their entire work, but I would not damn their books without wading through them. I like your take on things, but I have a weakness for argument and French intellectuals. Enjoy your pies. Thanks again, jon.

      • Tracy Seeley Says:

        From the reviews I’ve read, M. Bayard’s argument is quite a bit more sophisticated and nuanced than I’ve given credit to here–so I’ll be interested in hearing what you conclude once you’ve read his book. I think we all rely on reviews and conversation to “catch up” on books we won’t or don’t have time to read–and I think his argument is that those are essential practices for being culturally literate. I agree–though I don’t think it’s possible, as he argues, that we can do greater justice to a book by not opening it than we can if we read it. My blog post may well be a case in point.

        As always, thanks for your thoughtful contributions here. No humble pie needed (and we do say that here–and could do eat a lot more of it in America).

        Bon apetit!

  3. Sue Diplock Says:

    I’m beginning to suspect you could get a degree by following Bayard’s advice – maybe not a first but still …

  4. Maria Says:

    I confess: I’ve talked about books that I haven’t read, and I found that in some cases I was fairly good at it. As you know, I was an English Lit major with poor time management skills, so when I didn’t have time to read Middlemarch in just one day (to name one real-life example), I watched the BBC movie version while skimming essays and papers about it. I wrote an 8 page paper on it and then did a passably good job talking about it in class the next day (not your class, don’t worry), but I forgot everything about it shortly after, and to this day I cannot recall a single scene. I didn’t enjoy the unread book very much, but even worse, I didn’t remember the condensed and secondhand experience of MIddlemarch the way I might have remembered it if I had read it.

    To use to your pie example, I read and enjoyed the description of the pie, but just in the few minutes it has taken me to write this comment, I have already forgotten what kind of pie it was!

    Sometimes there are reasons for reading the review instead of reading the whole book and sometimes there are reasons for reading about pie instead of eating it, but it’s not a replacement for experiencing it firsthand. If I had tasted the pie, I would have remembered whether that warm, flaky crust contained apples or peaches or strawberry-rhubarb, and if I had read Middlemarch, I would probably still recall something, anything, about the book.

    Also, in comparing books I have read with books I have pretended to read, I am only able to change my opinions and deepen my understanding of the books that I did read. I can talk quite well about books that I have only pretended to read, but since doing so involves parroting someone’s thoughts about the book in lieu of reading it and forming my own perspective, my conversations about the book are limited to cocktail-party chatter and I am often unable to have those “aha!” moments in which someone points out an interpretation that I had missed, but which makes perfect sense and turns my own interpretation of the story upside-down. I think the difference can be summed up by saying that I can talk about books I haven’t read, but I can rarely discuss them.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Maria, If we readers were all to confess our non-read but well-discussed books, we’d have many tales to tell. But your experience with the non-read * Middlemarch* also reminds us what we miss: the lusciousness of the book (not just its outline, themes and salient reviews), the tastiness of immersing ourselves in language and story, the pleasures of imagination–our own and the author’s–and the whole nutrition-rich experience of reading it.

      Of course we can’t read everything worth reading, and there’s still value in being able to talk about pies we haven’t eaten; we participate in culture that way, and know the importance of *War and Peace* even if we haven’t read it. But faking it just isn’t the same as participating in a book, just as talking about a pie isn’t the same as eating it. The books I’ve loved best live in me–and only because I’ve ingested them. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

  5. Robert Braxton Says:

    Marilyn Robinson “The Death of Adam” I have read, as well as other works beginning with Gilead. Her considerable concern is “books one ought not to read” (forbidden to read) and the danger of “knowing” what an author said when one does not know at all. In fact in the example of Jean Cauvin (Calvin, Presbyterian) she demonstrates leaving off the Latin equivalent of “not” which comes at the very end of a passage which has the effect of making an allegation exactly the opposite of what Calvin actually writes.
    This encouraged me to tackle (something I have dreamed since beginning French class in 1960) two thousand four hundred pages of Marcel Proust in French. I still have about two thousand to go, being able to read aloud about four pages a one sitting. I also got the complete Calvin works, digital edition. in Latin, in French (translation) and in English (translation), a body of about twenty-five THOUSAND pages. Imagine producing so much in one’s twenties while also working as a pastor / priest and in town government!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Wow! I admire your reading program. And the point you make about taking on trust what’s in books without reading them oneself is important. Critical thought and independent reading and assessment of texts are vital to a healthy public life, don’t you think?

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  7. J Says:

    I love this article. I live in a province here in the Philippines, and I find it quite difficult to convince a student to even read a two-page article (non-required reading). Worse, students nowadays seem to cringe or look the other way the moment I show them a 300-page book for recommended reading.

    I just hope that one day the love for books will be revived here in our university. Every kid these days is so in to Facebook/Twitter that it’s already a challenge for them to understand a complex sentence (e.g. a line from Saramago or Marquez).

    I believe that literature is very important. Reading helps in developing critical thinking. But due to certain economic challenges faced by our students, buying books has become a luxury. Even when given the chance to buy discounted books, they would rather spend their money on playing videogames in internet cafes.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for sharing your lament from across the miles. I find it helpful to talk explicitly with my students about the different ways our minds work in response to different media, and it helps them to talk about why they find reading difficult, or what distracts them. Once they’re aware of different modes of thinking, or mentally engaging, etc., they tend to become more flexible, and take up reading with a clearer idea of what’s required. Love of books can be revived if there’s an institution-wide message about the value of reading and its importance to culture; and if reading and writing are celebrated. The accessibility of books is a big challenge, for sure, and I wish I had an easy answer for that.

  8. Jackie Says:

    Hi…I’m from Brazil and I’m enjoying very much to read your posts (I can lear more and also I can improve my English – sorry about some mistakes in your language).

    In my opinion, it can be “very easy” to read just the first pages of some books or something else and then to “try” to talk about them. What is really difficult is to read an entire book, from the begining to the end and also to understand what you are reading about.

    It is also important to read “slowly” (like you said in other post). Read can be easy, but what is really difficult is to understand what you are reading and then to make your own opinion.

    I think, you only can say that you are “really able” to discuss about something, if you know it (you already read, tried the pie, etc.). Otherwise, it is not your opinion, but the opinion of somebody else, someone that “really” read/tried.

    How can you be sure that what someone says is the truth if you didn’t “try the pie”?!?! “I guess” is not a good answer! It is better if you prove by trying/reading. Also, are you able to give your opinion about something that you didn’t read?!?!?! I don’t think so, you are just able to report!

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jackie–and I agree! Much better to eat the pie yourself than trust someone else’s account of the pie. Assuming, of course, it’s a well-made pie. Which Brazilian writers do you recommend?

  9. LJ DeCrescenzo Says:

    Just attended an interesting reading by the author of a new book on Mark Twain (aptly at the Mark Twain house and museum in Hartford, CT) that seems to speak of what you’re writing on two levels: literary and culinary. Twain’s Feast (the book by Andrew Beahrs) seems to capture Twain’s belief in the slow food/slow reading/slow living concepts (long before any of them were a movement) by his celebration of the local foods of his past (both for the foods themselves and for what they evoke in his reminiscences). And while I haven’t yet read the book (cough, cough…relying at this point on the reading and discussion by the author) I do intend to dig in to the text myself.

    As an aside, the museum staff provided a lovely reception of freshly picked foods from area orchards and farms…including fresh peach pie! This seemed a fitting accompaniment to the spirit of Twain, as revealed by Beahrs’ book (much more so than the specific favorite foods of which Twain catalogs).

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      This book sounds like the best of both: a deep appreciation of food and books. Of course, in Twain’s day, that’s the way everyone ate and read. Most food production was simply local! I always think how ironic it is that today we have to have a “movement” to get back to how people ate, read and interacted for centuries. Thanks for the recommendation–I’ll go out in search of the Twain book soon.

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