Musings/Non-readers' Charter

On the right of people to express opinions on books they haven't read.

Nowadays people are obsessed with rights. There is virtually no subset of humanity that does not vociferously claim them. There are women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, fathers' rights, drivers' rights, smokers' rights, prisoners' rights. The contemporary French writer Daniel Pennac is concerned with readers' rights. In "Comme un roman," he confers on book readers 10 inalienable rights. Among the rights Pennac grants you are the right not to read; the right to skip pages; the right to read whatever you like; the right to read wherever you like; the right to reread; and, most important of all, the right not to finish a book. I found one glaring omission: the right to express an opinion about a book you have not read.

You would be forgiven for thinking that asserting a right to spout off about a book without reading it is the stuff of satire, the kind of thing that the late Stephen Potter of "One-Upmanship" fame would dream up. Think again. A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement carried a review of a book entitled "Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus" - "How to discuss books that one hasn't read." The author of the book, Pierre Bayard, is a professor (what else?) of literature at (where else?) a French university. According to the review, this professor of literature has no appetite for reading and, anyway, the business of teaching literature being an arduous one, he cannot find the time to read. To the simple-minded that may sound like the surgeon who can't bear the sight of blood, but the reviewer asserts that Bayard's project is a serious one.

For Bayard, feeling obliged to read a book is a constraint that leads to a lack of openness in our dealings with each other and generates unnecessary feelings of guilt. If I understand him correctly, there is something underhanded about reading a book that you propose to discuss. Anyhow, he explains himself later, in the lucid terms that one expects of a French post-modernist. "In discussing books," he writes, "we are doing far more than exchanging foreign elements in our culture; these are aspects of ourselves that serve, in stressful situations of narcissistic menace, to assure us of our inner coherence." Did you follow that, you at the back?

Embassies have been burned down for less, but I feel respectfully obliged to doubt if the most devastating book critic of modern times, the Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, got through the whole of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" before sending out his fellow bibliophiles to bring his criticism personally to the attention of the author. Though they failed to find the bashful novelist himself, they were able to serve literature by scragging a publisher and a couple of translators. In his understandable reluctance to confront his critics personally, Rushdie had the consolation that the ayatollah's lethal review did for his book what the words "banned in Boston" did for books of an earlier generation: It did wonders for his sales.

I myself have asked my publisher to arrange a fatwa for my forthcoming book. If he finds that beyond him, I would make do with a condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League. They were charitable enough to enrich Mel Gibson; surely they could do as much for a fellow son of the covenant.

Deeply pessimistic

All this is by way of a lengthy prelude to an admission that I am about to break a rule and discuss a book that I did not finish. I got to page 177 of Avraham Burg's "Victory Over Hitler" before throwing in the towel. The book has acquired an undeserved notoriety thanks to the identity of the author, rather than to any qualities the book may or may not possess. Had all those who have given their opinion of the book read it, its sales would have surpassed those of "The Da Vinci Code," but I believe that I am 177 pages ahead of all but a few of them - most vocal critics having, instead of reading the book, which contains the author's reflections on Zionism and Israeliness, opted to rely on Ari Shavit's lengthy interview with Burg in Haaretz some weeks ago.

It is surely a sign of instability that, in the course of writing the book, Burg made a more than cosmetic change to the title: "Hitler's Victory" became "Victory Over Hitler." The former might have been a more honest choice because it is a deeply pessimistic book. Burg doesn't like Israelis very much; he prefers Europeans. Israel is, he believes, a militaristic society unhealthily obsessed with the Holocaust. He likens today's Israel and what he views as its rampant racism to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He considers that any Israeli who can should get himself a foreign passport. In this respect he practices what he preaches; he has acquired French citizenship and even voted in the recent French presidential elections.

Burg is to all intents and purposes a pacifist; the book is imbued with the same woolly universalism that has gripped Europe since it ceased to be worried by external threats to its existence. He believes in passive resistance; he would not have joined the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, he says. The Gandhi-like image is somewhat tarnished when we are informed that he still enjoys, and has even gone to court to enforce, the generous perks to which he is entitled as a former chairman of the Jewish Agency and speaker of the Knesset. Those who have accused him of spitting into the well from which he has drunk are being unjust; he is still drinking from it.

Indeed he is an archetypal Zionist figure. As the son of a now-deceased cabinet minister renowned for his ministerial longevity, Burg was born to the Zionist purple. And he grew up to become the international face of Zionism - chairman of the World Zionist Organization, no less. Although his views render him the polar opposite of the Israeli religious right, he still sports its tribal badge, the knitted skullcap. If Burg had only annoyed the usual suspects, the notoriously prickly Israeli right, no one would have been surprised, but he also succeeded in getting up the noses of the left.

In a piece on the Burg affair for The New Yorker entitled "The Apostate," David Remnick (who, incidentally, with his celebrated army of checkers, failed to distinguish between the English words "flouting" and "flaunting") quotes one of the leaders of the Israeli left, the philosopher Avishai Margalit, as saying that for a leader of the Zionist movement to advise Israelis to get another passport for their kids is "like the pope giving sex tips."

I feel uncomfortable joining the pack baying for Burg's blood. After all, writing what he wrote required courage and much of what he said needed to be said. But Burg's black picture is a partial picture and a partial picture is a false picture. Moreover, Israelis may be paranoid, but they have real enemies. Pacifism may do no harm in France; in Israel it is the way to national suicide.

Now that I have delivered my opinion of it, perhaps I shall finish that book.