For the Chinese students who read only to show off later, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read should be their bible. A typical conversation with a typical Chinese student goes like this:
Me (teacher): What English books have you read?
Student: I like Jane Eyre.
Me (teacher): Have you read it?
Student: … umm… no [smiles].
Me (angry, Chinese): IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT THEN YOU CAN’T LIKE IT, OK?!
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read tells you that reading is pointless (except for the bragging rights), that books contain useless information (except for the stuff on the cover) and that cheating people is commonplace (everybody knows; nobody cares; and nobody talks about it).
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is about an imaginary world where people are constantly trying to climb over each other in a social pyramid. The book tells us that during discussions, it’s “shameful” to admit that one’s never read any particular book, and that we should make up a flattering nonsense-review on the spot when we’re questioned. The level of snootiness and superficiality sounds even worse than that in Cambridge University. It’s quite unsettling.
The author thinks he’s invented a new kind of “meta-reading”. Meta-reading is not actually reading, it’s simply the memorisation of hundreds of book titles coupled with “the art of bullshitting”, the only purpose of which is to impress other people. Meta-reading sounds like a course at New Oriental School, where students learn “meta-English” by memorising thousands of long words and standardised phrases which substitute for real, human intelligence. It’s goldbricking. The only purpose of these “meta-” courses which is to “give you face”, i.e. to cheat your way through tests and interviews. However, for most of us, who couldn’t care less what other people think, these cheat tactics, and How to Talk, are completely pointless.
By the end, How to Talk was worse than pointless. Rather than read more books, we should apparently accelerate our pompous bragging about books we haven’t read ad infinitum, in an attempt to conquer the pressures of culture. I had such a visceral reaction to the art of “pompous bragging” that I’m left wondering whether Cambridge students brag so much merely to make others uncomfortable (Cambridge students think they’re infinitely better than everyone else). ★★