Skimming Proust

Valerio MezanottiPierre Bayard, French literature professor at the University of Paris and author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, responds to questions posed by Deborah Solomon in today's New York Times Magazine.

"I think between reading and nonreading there is an indeterminate space that is quite important, a space where you have books you have skimmed, books you have heard about and books you have forgotten. You don’t have to feel guilty about it."

But what about those of us who read to feel things — to experience pleasure, an end to loneliness? Of course I read in order to feel something. And to feel an end to my loneliness, of course, just as you.

Then why are you so willing to devalue the experience of close reading in favor of skimming? You seem to believe that knowing a little bit about 100 literary classics is preferable to knowing one book intimately. I think a great reader is able to read from the first line to the last line; if you want to do that with some books, it’s necessary to skim other books. If you want to fall in love with someone, it’s necessary to meet many people. You see what I mean?

Have you read all of Proust, on whom you once wrote a scholarly book, “Off the Subject: Proust and Digression”? Proust is very difficult to read. His sentences are long and have very strange constructions, so it is not very possible to read it from the first line to the last line. You are obliged to use another way of reading.

Are you saying you skimmed Proust? Yes, of course I did! I prefer to say that I live with Proust. He’s a companion. Sometimes I go to Proust and I seek advice for my life. I open it and I skim some pages. That is to live with books. It’s important to live with books.