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How (Not) To: Pierre Bayard’s non-participatory approach to getting more out of life

Sometimes the best advice tells us to go against conventional wisdom. Pierre Bayard, for one, seems to think that not doing certain things widely assumed to be good for us might be the best way to achieve something truly meaningful, or at least satisfying, in life.

Bayard is a Paris-based literature professor and psychoanalyst. He works at the University of Paris VIII, the past employer of such influential theorists as Lacan, Foucault and Cixous. The two key works in what I take to be Bayard’s philosophy of non-participatory self-improvement are the playfully titled How to Talk About Books You’ve Never Read (2007) and How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been (2016).

Pierre Bayard decries the “widespread hypocrisy” of pretending to be better read than we are.

One of these books contends that reading great literature may not improve your mind, while the other asserts that travel may not broaden it.

In the earlier book – which is an international bestseller, meaning that probably a fair few people did read it – Bayard decries the “widespread hypocrisy” of pretending to be better read than we are. Bayard himself confesses he never read Proust all the way through and has no desire to begin Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he feels he already knows from what so many people have said about it.

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Why, he asks, should he or anyone else feel a compulsion even to feign having read books much easier to admire than digest. More challenging still, Bayard argues that reading books may actually interfere with literary appreciation. The general idea advanced here seems to be that the less we know about something the easier it is to have an opinion on the subject. And opinion rather than knowledge is what stimulates engaging and memorable conversation, with all of the social benefits that come with companionship and good times.

According to this iconoclastic approach, a bookish self-help book like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life may have the potential to be of greater use than the original work by Proust from which it derives. And chatting with friends over a glass of wine about De Botton talking about Proust may give more pleasure to some people than the solitary reading of the books of either author.

He also argues that travelling the world in and of itself no guarantee of enlightenment and edification.

Bayard says you can talk to a living author about the book of theirs you have not read (or have read but dislike) if you “praise it without going into too much detail”. The nature of your response to an author as a person is as reliable a guide as any as to whether you would enjoy reading their book.

Just as dutifully digesting literary classics will not by itself make us smarter or better company, so too does Bayard argue that travelling the world in and of itself no guarantee of enlightenment and edification. In How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been, Bayard argues that the most penetrating insights into foreign places may come without venturing outside the front door.

The premise here is that travel narrows the mind, while exposing the traveller to physical hazards and psychological disturbance. “There is nothing to show that travelling is the best way to discover a town or a country you do not know. Everything points to the contrary – and the experience of numerous writers supports this – if you want to talk about a place, the best thing to do is stay at home”.

Bayard says that when we embark on travel we tend to bring our own attitudes and cultural baggage and all that we think we already know to a new place.

Choosing to opt out of conventional forms of self-improvement might help us to focus on what really matters in life.

In the era post-Lonely Planet when every place has been written about in exhaustive detail, it is easy to fault the earliest European travel writers such as Marco Polo for getting so many things wrong, though that dismissive response, according to Bayard, misses the point. The medieval Venetian merchant wrote a famous account of the 20 years or so he spent travelling mainly in Asia during the 13th century. The Travels of Marco Polo includes detailed information, apparently gained at firsthand, about everything from the social customs practised in different regions of China to the closely observed behaviour of unicorns and griffins.

Bayard is inclined to agree with those scholars who doubt that Marco Polo ever left Venice, though in his view it doesn’t really matter. In his (non-) travel writings, Marco Polo reveals an extraordinary amount about himself and in doing also so provides an insight into what Europeans, virtually none of whom at that time could travel outside their village, knew and imagined about exotic (to them) places across the ocean.

The fascination of a less than wholly reliable narrative like that of Marco Polo is not that he went to all the places he purports to describe but that he could write such a compelling and in many ways plausible account of them. Perhaps we intuit more about human life than we realise, no matter where we or other people live.

Whenever we travel to a new place there is always something of what we take with us waiting for our arrival which may well lead us astray. Christopher Columbus, for instance, “discovered” people he confusedly thought of as “Indians” in North America. It is a mistake that regrettably has lived on in the English language for centuries after Columbus was known to have made a monumental error in navigation.

Choosing to opt out of conventional forms of self-improvement might help us to focus on what really matters in life.

Bayard does not discount the value of non-travel even as he points out the folly of much supposedly authentic journeying. He defends Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who in 2003 was professionally disgraced when it was discovered that more than one of the “eyewitness” reports he filed for the paper from locations in places like Texas and Virginia had in fact been written in an apartment in Brooklyn.

While a factor in his downfall was allegations of plagiarism, in other respects, argues Bayard, Blair wrote about the places to which he never went with greater care and objectivity than if he had been on the ground there. “It is hard to deny, independent of any inquiry into journalistic ethics, that Jayson Blair’s apparent flippancy was in reality accompanied by authentic documentary research and a real concern for accuracy”.

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Without moving from his home office, Bayard argues that Blair achieved in his reporting through remote research and educated guesswork a more scrupulous evocation of place that could have been accomplished from the largely subjective impression gained from a brief time on the ground. We do not dismiss historical novelists as frivolous when they write about people and societies far removed in time from what them and their readers – why should any writer, even a journalist, be pilloried for the effective use of their imagination and research skills? Every person has their unique impression of a place they visit anyway.

Ultimately what Pierre Bayard offers in his witty take-down of the shibboleths of literature and travel is a way of looking at expert opinions and personal experience in a new light. We are creatures of individual fancy, he affirms, who defy the frames of reference that others seek to impose on us. We may not see the wood for the trees even when we are standing at the centre of the forest.

Reading a literary classic and travelling a lot may be educative and enjoyable activities but they won’t necessarily make you a better person, while not doing those things doesn’t make someone a lesser being. Being stimulated to think imaginatively may be the most important thing that can ever happen to any of us.

If Bayard is correct then occasionally letting our minds run free within our own headspace is a sure path to genuinely original thought. Choosing to opt out of conventional forms of self-improvement might help us to focus on what really matters in life.

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Main illustration by Akiko Chan, Instagram @aki.chan

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