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How to talk about books you havent read

Zafar Anjum | Jan. 19, 2009
<i>Where there is a will, there is a way</i>as far as talking about books one hasnt read is concerned.

Thank God, most people dont read books. Imagine how drab a conversation would be if it were only about booksunless those involved were writers or literature students. At least in Singapore, what I have seen during my MRT train rides or on buses is not very intellectually threateningmost people either read The Bible or self-help guides or get-rich-quick books, the Rich Dad, Poor Dad kind of books. Looking at the titles of these books, you know these are not garrulous folksthey want some peace of mind and soul or want to get ahead in life. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you happen to find yourself in an unpleasant situation (with a pleasant person, let us say a person of the opposite sex you cant ignore or a person of power you have to make a deal with) of talking about a book that you havent read, worry not. There is help. There are ways to come out of the situation unscathed, even sounding impressive and intelligent.

You dont believe it. Roger that. Neither did I in the first place.

But this piece of reassuring wisdom came to me during the last happy holidays season when I hit upon a book by Pierre Bayard. It is called How to talk about books you havent read. Yes, you read it right. That is the title of the book. I had read a review of the book in The New York Times sometime ago but hadnt had the opportunity to lay my hands on the book until now. I read it and I was convinced.

Simple theory

Now before you dismiss the book as another tricky treatise, let me tell you who Bayard is. Bayard is a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst. Impressed?

Bayards theory is simple: There are millions of books in the world and it is not possible for a single individual to read all of them. In our culture, books are put in certain categories and having read a few of them would qualify you to talk about all those books in a particular category that you havent read. For example, read a few books from the Victorian era and you are qualified to talk about any book from that category.

And you can do it without shame. Here is what Bayard says: To speak without shame about books we havent read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive towards this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it.


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