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Relax. You don't have to read to be well read Add to ...

I am so thrilled to have discovered Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read: It gives an argument to support what one has intuitively felt all one's life and, more importantly, it gives one an excuse to judge, and judge quite harshly, all those ecstatically lauded, good-for-you Canadian books - on the Giller Prize short list, for instance - that you can't bear to even begin.

This has been a real problem for me. I mean, I would love to come out and say, oh, come on, are all these sad historical novels really the best this country can offer? But I can't, because I haven't read them, so I technically cannot judge them. I feel like saying, "Well surely my complete absence of desire to read our most highly rewarded books must count as a mark against them." But that bespeaks arrogance and I would be criticized for that, so I don't.

So along comes the brilliant Bayard, professor of literature at the Sorbonne, with an armoury full of sleek and shining arguments for not reading and nevertheless forming coherent opinions on books. I know it sounds like a joke, but it's quite a serious book, with all kinds of geeky French-style new ideas such as the inner book, the screen book, the virtual library and so on. It's way more fun (I'm guessing) than another reflection on family, memory and loss in the light of the Holocaust. (I don't know, of course, because I don't read books like that, but now I can say that we are all talking about virtual books anyway and that my unread virtual book is just as valid as your read one.)

This brings up some of the responses I have had to my recent rantings about the value of fiction. I received several letters from readers who said, What are you talking about?

I try to read fiction (say my angry readers) and I find it too dull. It's always crushingly depressing and slow and it's about women in the past. It feels relentlessly good for me, as if I should feel ennobled by feeling sorry for people to whom bad things have happened.

Well, this is simply the sad result of the propaganda created by our media. If you read the bestseller lists and listen to the CBC, then you form a completely distorted view of what fiction is.

You think it's these morality tales of good victims. You aren't told that there are fun stories out there, many of which actually take place in the present and many of which contain amusing and politically incorrect characters. You will never hear either about all the fun genre books with huge followings, about all the science fiction and crime novels and thrillers that could teach many of our most revered writers a thing or two about pacing and intrigue. Those books are not rewarded in this country; they are not included in "Heather's Picks" and they never show up on major prize short lists.

But they are out there. In fact, if you hang around a group of Canadian fiction writers, you will hear them excitedly discussing all kinds of exciting books - all the Lorrie Moores and Michael Chabons of the United States, all the Gautam Malkanis and Irvine Welshes of Britain ... all the books that don't make it to your mom's book club, the books you can be forgiven for not knowing about if you're a devotee of Canada Reads. (It will also give you the impression that these Canadian fiction writers don't have a whole lot of time for the work of their Canadian peers, and that impression may well be correct.)

But back to Bayard and non-reading. One of his most charming arguments is that to be really well informed one cannot attempt to read all the books. Because of the volume of books, the task is simply impossible. One is a much better educated person if one takes the attitude of a librarian - if one knows enough about each book to know where it fits, how it is to be categorized - that is, not just what it is about and to what genre it belongs but what opinions are generally held about it. Knowing a great deal about books in general, and having skimmed a writer's work before, could enable one, for example, to guess pretty accurately about what reading the new Giller-quality work would be like. It might therefore also permit one to say to oneself, "I do not enjoy that book," without having to go through the soul-improving exercise of actually reading it. I am all in favour of this.

There is a danger here, even from Bayard's point of view, and that is that the book I would be talking about would be simply the "screen book," a false idea of a book based on what I have heard from others. Although one's "inner book," the book that one has made for oneself by interpreting one's own life in light of the actual one, is probably the most lasting and important one for all of us. That's the one I trust, and I have strong inner books created from skimming the most popular Canadian authors.

At any rate, Bayard has made life much easier for Canadians. He has given us the tools for a rebellion.

rsmith@globeandmail.com

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