a literature review as collective and inner library

I recently mentioned in passing in this blog, in relation to writing book reviews in fact, the book by Pierre Bayard provocatively entitled How to talk about books you haven’t read (2007).

I want to suggest now that this is actually a book worth reading – not so that you can literally do what the title suggests, although you might feel this is very acceptable after you’ve read it – but rather worth reading for the key points that Bayard makes. I contend that these are as relevant to academic reading – and the dreaded ‘literature review’ in particular – as any of the how-to-do it texts, including my own.

The first section of the book – on books you haven’t read, books you’ve skimmed, books you’ve never heard of and books you’ve forgotten – contains ideas highly relevant to academic work. Let me take the first of these, books you haven’t read, as a means of illustrating why I make this assertion.

Bayard, who is actually a professor of literature, takes as his way in to discussion about not reading Musil’s The man without qualities – I confess I’d have to put this down as a +FB (one of the books I’ve read but forgotten). One of the characters in the book is a General Stumm who decides to do some reading in order to find out about his political opposition, but is so daunted by the number of volumes in the library that he visits that he decides that it is an impossible task and not worth beginning. Fortunately a handy librarian tells him that it is quite possible to understand the library and what’s in it by reading books about books.

Bayard takes from Musil the idea that it is never possible to read everything and foolish to try or pretend. Rather it is important, he suggests, to try to grasp the shape of the collective library as well as the relationships that elements of the whole have with each other. He assures us that people interested in books are those who not only take account of the content of any text that they read, but also its location in relation to those that they have not. It is the capacity to understand the place of a book within the collective library that makes it possible for a reader to merely skim the contents in order to grasp its most essential points.

Later in the first section of his book, Bayard also talks about the notion of an inner library, a subset of the collective library. These are those particular books which orient individual readers to books in general and to other people. An inner library includes those books which have made a deep impression on the reader and those which are most useful and used.

Both of these points are highly germane to academic reading and I think the notion of a collective and inner library might be very helpful in approaching the task of ‘doing’ the literature ‘review’.

It is critical in undertaking any review of literature to take on board the notion that the task is simultaneously about coming to grips with some texts, but also understanding the shape of the field – its collective library – and where a particular text fits in relation to others. It is also important to understand that every person in the field will assemble their own inner library, the set of texts that help them come to grips with key ideas, debates, gaps and blind spots. While there may be some key texts that must be read, they may actually only need to be skimmed in the way Bayard suggests (see my post on skimming an academic book), so that its broad contribution and its location, its relationship to and location in the rest of the library, is understood – rather than its every detail.

Understanding this might remove some of the guilt and shame from the literatures task.

Bayard’s book, Id suggest, could well be set on research training courses to orient beginning researchers to the literatures task. Alternatively, it’s a deceptively straightforward read which could be taken on holiday without too much resentment.

PS: See a very witty but serious video discussion about these ideas between Pierre Bayard and Umberto Eco.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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6 Responses to a literature review as collective and inner library

  1. Ben says:

    Great post Pat, I’ve slowly come round to this way of thinking since I started writing my PhD (over 2 years ago now!). I think this idea helps to resolve a conflict and misunderstanding I’ve noticed between students and teachers. The conflict regarding the level of detail required in a literature review. I feel that many students misinterpret the criticism, “your lit review should be more detailed” to mean they should include more references and write more about each reference. In reality, the thing that needs to be more detailed is the inner library. The more connections you can make between what your reading and the context will add layers and layers of depth and detail to any literature review.

    Thanks for all the great advice!


  2. i´m glad you´ve written this – I posted a link to Bayard´s book on FB a couple of months ago. I did so precisely because of how it helped me conceptualise and make greater sense of that process of the Lit Review 😉

    (ps. must also say that given the very literary ´traditional´ form of formal education I received in my years of being schooled in France, I´m delighted that the book you mention, entitled ´Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?´ should have been written by a French academic – it appears to break the mold of what is seen as ´accepted´ / ´acceptable´ there on quite a few levels… or such is my appreciation of it!)


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