Alex Good in The Walrus:
The author of the surprise bestseller How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard, is a standard-bearer for today’s highbrow aliterates. Bayard is a college professor of French literature, a position that paradoxically leaves him with “no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened” (or, for that matter, has ever had any desire to open). And this is nothing he feels any shame or anxiety about. Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text. Actual books are thus “rendered hypothetical,” replaced by virtual books in phantom libraries that represent an inner, fantasy scriptorium or shared social consciousness.
Assuming that Bayard’s tongue isn’t stuck too far in his cheek, one can interpret his reasoning as an argument that not reading books can be a cultured activity in itself, a way of expressing one’s faith in and affection for literature. More often, however, top-down aliteracy only expresses weariness, cynicism, and even contempt for the written word.
My first exposure to this type of thinking came, naturally enough, while studying English literature in university. Academics, for no good reason whatsoever, are expected to publish a great deal of stuff that nobody—and I mean nobody—reads.