DRMacIver's Notebook

Extracts from "How to talk about books you haven't read"

Extracts from "How to talk about books you haven't read"

I'm a big fan of Pierre Bayard's "How to talk about books you haven't read". I've even read it twice (insert witty joke about title here).

Unfortunately, it is written exactly like you would expect nonfiction written by someone who specialises in literature to be written: Badly.

This isn't entirely fair. The quality of the writing is excellent. The problem with it is written to tell a story, but in fact it is a book that is trying to teach you something. This makes it a pleasure to read, but a pain to actually use because every time you go back to it you need to hunt through it to find the bits you want because there is no goddamn index and the crucial terms are introduced embedded halfway through a story.

Anyway, I've hunted down these terms enough times that I thought I'd just write them down. So I thought I'd write a note about the three types of representations of a book that Bayard talks about. Page numbers all refer to my copy, so yours might not be the same, sorry.

Three types of library

Collective Library (p. 12)

Most statements about a book are not about the book itself, despite appearances, but about the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment. It is that set, which I shall henceforth refer to as the collective library, that truly matters, since it is our mastery of this collective library that is at stake in all discussions about books. But this mastery is a command of relations, not of any book in isolation, and it easily accommodates ignorance of a large part of the whole.

Inner Library (p. 73)

We might use the term inner library to characterize that set of books—a subset of the collective library—around which every personality is constructed, and which then shapes each person’s individual relationship to books and to other people. Specific titles figure in these private libraries, but, like Montaigne’s, they are primarily composed of fragments of forgotten and imaginary books through which we apprehend the world.

Virtual Library (p. 125)

The third type of library that I am introducing here, the virtual library, is the realm in which books are discussed, in either written or oral form, with other people. It is a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library and is located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion.

Three types of book

Screen books (p. 44)

Freud uses the term screen memory to designate false or insignificant childhood memories whose function is to conceal others less acceptable to the conscious mind.


...the books we talk about are only glancingly related to "real" books - indeed what else would we expect? - and are often no more than screen books. Or, if you prefer, what we talk about is not the books themselves, but substitute objects we create for the occasion.

Inner books (p. 83)

I propose the term inner book to designate the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without realizing it. Largely unconscious, this imaginary book acts as a filter and determines the reception of new texts by selecting which of its elements will be retained and how they will be interpreted.


The second of three "books" studied in this essay, the inner book influences all the transformations to which we subject books, turning htem into screen books. The term inner book appears in Proust with a meaning close to the one I am giving it: "As for the inner book of unknown symbols (symbols carved in relief they might have been, which my attention, as it explored my unconscious, groped for and stumbled against and followed the contorus of, like a diver exploring the ocean-bed), if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us [...] This book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one which has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the 'impression' has been printed in us by reality itself"

Phantom books (p. 160)

The third type of book I am introducing here, the phantom book, is that mobile and ungraspable object that we will call into being, in writing or in speech, when we talk about a book. It is located at the point where readers' various screen books meet - screen books that reads have constructed based on their inner books. The phantom book belongs to the virtual library of our exchanges, as the screen book belongs to the collective library and the inner book belongs to the inner library.

Thoughts on the book overall

I really like this book but am also very frustrated by it. I might have to read it a third time to get it out of my head, at which point I will attempt to turn it into some essays.

The source of my frustration is that it is a very good book, and it achieves its purpose in a way that a more technical essay of its nature would not have I feel, but I really wish that technical essay also existed, and I don't want to have to be the one to write it.