Sunday, February 25, 2007

Read It? No, but You Can Skim a Few Pages and Fake It
By Alan Riding

PARIS, Feb. 23 — It may well be that too many books are published, but by good fortune, not all must be read. In practice, primed by publishers, critics, teachers, authors and word-of-mouth, a form of natural selection limits essential reading to those classics and best sellers that become part of civilized intellectual and social discourse.

Of course, many people don’t get through these books, either, and too embarrassed to admit it, they worry constantly about being exposed as philistines.

Now Pierre Bayard, a Paris University literature professor, has come to their rescue with a survivor’s guide to life in the chattering classes. And it is evidently much in need. "How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?" has become a best seller here, with translation rights snapped up across Europe and under negotiation in Britain and the United States.

"I am surprised because I hadn’t imagined how guilty nonreaders feel," Mr. Bayard, 52, said in an interview. "With this book, they can shake off their guilt without psychoanalysis, so it’s much cheaper."

Mr. Bayard reassures them that there is no obligation to read, and confesses to lecturing students on books that he has either not read or has merely skimmed. And he recalls passionate exchanges with people who also have not read the book under discussion.

He further cites writers like Montaigne, who could not remember what he read, and Paul Valéry, who found ways of praising authors whose books he had never opened. Mr. Bayard finds characters in novels by Graham Greene , David Lodge and others who cheerfully question the need to read at all. And he refuses to be intimidated by Proust or Joyce.

Having demonstrated that non-readers are in good company, Mr. Bayard then offers tips on how to cover up ignorance of a "must-read" book.

Meeting a book’s author can be particularly tricky. Here, Mr. Bayard said there was no need to display knowledge of the book, since the author already has his own ideas about it. Rather, he said, the answer is "to speak well of it without entering into details." Indeed, all the author needs to hear is that "one has loved what he has written."

Domestic life is another potentially hazardous zone. People often want their spouses and partners to share their love of a particular book. And when this happens, Mr. Bayard said, they can both inhabit a "secret universe." But if only one has read the book, silent empathy may offer the best way out.

Students, he noted from experience, are skilled at opining about books they have not read, building on elements he may have provided in a lecture. This approach can also work in the more exposed arena of social gatherings: the book’s cover, reviews and other public reaction to it, gossip about the author and even the current conversation can all provide food for sounding informed.

One alternative, he said, is to try to change the subject. Another is to admit not knowing a particular book while suggesting knowledge of the so-called "collective library" into which the book fits.

But Mr. Bayard’s most daring suggestion is that nonreaders should talk about themselves, using the pretext of the book without dwelling on its contents. In this way, he said, they are forced to tap their imagination and, in effect, invent their own book.

"To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books," he writes.

That Mr. Bayard enjoys the role of iconoclast is evident in the titles of some of his earlier books, including "How to Improve Failed Literary Works," in which he examines "failed" books by Proust, Marguerite Duras and others, and "Inquiry Into Hamlet," in which he sets out to prove that Claudius did not murder his brother and Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark.

With his new book, he is also a tad subversive because "How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read?" is not really what it appears to be. "It is told by a fictional personality who boasts about not reading and is obviously not me," he explained. "This is not a book written by a nonreader."
But he chose this device, he said, because he wanted to help people conquer their fear of culture by challenging the way that literature is presented to students and the public in France.

"We are taught one way of reading," he said. "Students are told to read the book, then to fill out a form detailing everything they have read. It’s a linear approach that serves to enshrine books. People now come up to me to describe the cultural wounds they suffered at school. ‘You have to read all of Proust.’ They were traumatized."

"They see culture as a huge wall, as a terrifying specter of ‘knowledge,’ " he went on. "But we intellectuals, who are avid readers, know there are many ways of reading a book. You can skim it, you can start and not finish it, you can look at the index. You learn to live with a book."

So, yes, he conceded, his true aim is to make people read more — but with more freedom. "I want people to learn to live with books," he said. "I want to help people organize their own paths through culture. Also those outside the written word, those who are so attached to the image that it’s difficult to bring them back."

Then why, he was asked, did he write a book that seems to justify nonreading?

"I like to write funny books," he said. "I try to use humor to deal with complex subjects."

Serious Book to Peddle? Don’t Laugh, Try a Comedy Show
By Julie Bosman

FEW authors, no matter how serious or scholarly, can afford to be so stubbornly Pynchonesque as to refuse to participate in a book tour. If they want to sell books, that is.

But fewer still could have guessed until recently that their best pitchmen — and most engaged interviewers — would be the comedians of late-night cable.

Take Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi “banker to the poor” who recently appeared on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central after it was announced that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Tell me about microfinancing and microlending,” Mr. Stewart asked earnestly. “Because there’s a theory that you developed through your work in economics that has really proven to be incredibly effective in fighting poverty.”

Mr. Stewart has also interviewed Ishmael Beah, the young Sierra Leonian who just published “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir about his wrenching experience as a child soldier; Jeffrey Rosen, the George Washington University law professor who wrote “The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America”; and Vali Nasr, the Middle East expert who was promoting “The Shia Revival,” an examination of ethnic conflict in Iraq.

Since when did microlending, global poverty, constitutional law and civil wars in Africa become topics for frank discussion on fake-news comedy shows?

Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, “The Daily Show” and its spinoff, “The Colbert Report,” which has on similarly wonky authors, like the former White House official David Kuo, have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on “The Early Show” on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party.

Mr. Yunus’s appearance gave a jump-start to his national press tour and sent his rank on the online bookseller Amazon soaring, said Susan Weinberg, who is the publisher of PublicAffairs. “It was our pièce de résistance,” Ms. Weinberg said. “It had a huge impact on the book.”

Tony Fox, a spokesman for Comedy Central, said that though “The Daily Show” has been on the air since 1996, the number of authors featured has increased significantly in the last five years.
Authors are treated to a fairly straight conversation with Mr. Stewart, but Stephen Colbert, who remains in character as a Bill O’Reilly-type commentator, can be a more challenging interviewer who forces the author to play along with his schtick. “It’s a different experience,” Ms. Weinberg said wryly.

Television programs that devote significant attention to serious authors have practically gone the way of the illuminated manuscript, publishers lament. Brian Lamb’s long-running “Booknotes” program on C-Span was permanently shuttered in 2004. “The Charlie Rose Show” doesn’t generate as much buzz as it used to or translate into higher sales after an author appearance, some publishers say. And the morning shows seem to prefer a bad Britney to a good book.

Many publishers shrug off “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC and “Late Show With David Letterman” on CBS, saying they are too celebrity-driven to be interested in serious authors, and usually fail to generate a bump in sales anyway.

All that’s left are programs like “60 Minutes” on CBS, “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC, “Larry King Live” on CNN, and, of course, “Oprah” — all extremely competitive venues for placing an author.

“The people who have abandoned us have abandoned us,” said Martha K. Levin, the publisher of Free Press, which last fall released “In the Line of Fire,” a memoir by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan. “Particularly for nonfiction, we are so dependent on media. And television has an impact that is unparalleled.”

But the Comedy Central shows are also becoming extremely competitive for publicists placing their authors. After a “Daily Show” appearance, several publishers said, the author’s Amazon ranking rises and the daily sales figures “pop,” in industry parlance. It is not at all unusual, one book publicist said, for a title to go from a 300,000 rank to a spot in the Top 300 — not often the case after shows like “Charlie Rose.”

“If I had my choice between Charlie Rose and Jon Stewart, I’d pick Jon Stewart, no question,” said one publicist who spoke anonymously because she didn’t want to anger the bookers on “Charlie Rose.”

About a year ago, publicists began noticing that Mr. Stewart was interviewing serious authors, said Lissa Warren, the senior director of publicity for Da Capo Press. “It was almost an ‘oh my God’ moment,” she said. “There aren’t that many television shows that will have on serious authors. And when they do have one, it’s almost startling.”

Part of the surprise, publishers said, is that the Comedy Central audience is more serious than its reputation allows. The public may still think of the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” audience as a group of sardonic slackers, Gen-Y college students who prefer YouTube to print. But publishers say it’s a much more diverse demographic — and more important, a book-buying audience.

“It’s the television equivalent of NPR,” Ms. Levin, of Free Press, said. “You have a very savvy, interested audience who are book buyers, people who do go into bookstores, people who are actually interested in books.”

According to Nielsen Media Research, the nightly audience for “The Daily Show” averages about 1.6 million, while “The Colbert Report” attracts an average of 1.2 million. (“The 1/2 Hour News Hour” on Fox, the conservative answer to the Comedy Central shows, had its premiere with 1.5 million viewers last Sunday but does not plan to do author interviews, a Fox spokeswoman said.)
Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said during his interview last year on “The Daily Show” to promote “The Case for Goliath,” Mr. Stewart drew out the most important themes of the book — points that were ignored by other interviewers.

“In my experience, it’s not just that serious books get a hearing on comedy shows,” Mr. Mandelbaum said. “But serious books get a serious hearing, as well as a funny one, on comedy shows.”

And if it is true that comedy thrives on opposites, then perhaps the combination of serious and slapstick makes perfect sense. “They can be themselves on the show,” said Mr. Fox of Comedy Central, describing the dynamic between authors and Mr. Stewart. “They can be the straight guy and he’s the funny guy.”

Not that Mr. Stewart injects comedy into every interview. He all but wept when he interviewed Mr. Beah, saying, “I’ve rarely read a book that makes my heart hurt — but this really does.”
Jeff Seroy, a spokesman for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Mr. Beah’s publisher, said the Stewart appearance had a huge effect, doubling the online sales of the book the day after the show.
Mr. Seroy said that in meeting Mr. Beah before the show Mr. Stewart said, “I don’t know how I’m going to make this funny.”

Jon Stewart - Stephen Colbert - Serious Book to Peddle? Don’t Laugh, Try a Comedy Show - New York Times

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