Book: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Idiot’s guide to repulsive, pompous bragging
208 pages, ★★

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). ★★

6 thoughts on “Book: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

  1. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this. I read this book much more as a satire… I mean, its written by one of the most well0read men around. it felt to me a book about our many different relationships that we have with books, as well as their relationships with each other. For such a little, seemingly dismissive little book, I found that it spoke to some much greater truths about readers and the books they live with.

    There’s a wonderful discussion with both Bayard and Eco about this book that I linked in my review of the book here (http://myintelligentlife.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/on-the-virtues-of-non-reading/), and what is perhaps one of my favorite excerpts from the discussion here (http://fora.tv/2007/11/17/Bayard_and_Eco_How_to_Talk_About_Books_You_Havent_Read). You should give it a watch, it may help you see the book in a different light.

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    1. If this book is to be taken literally, it affirms that conceited non-readers exist. In my experience, they’re repulsive people to be around. I spent too much time around these people in Cambridge. They belittle you at every opportunity.

      If this book is to be taken as satire (which it almost certainly should be), then it makes uncultured “commoners” or “non-aristocrats” (like me) the targets of humiliation by taking us for fools. Discussing books we haven’t read is a dead loss for it would make us look even more foolish, less cultured, and more estranged than if we’d said nothing at all. Furthermore, it’s lying and it would make us feel vacuous. From my working-class perspective, I see no way to like this book.

      This book’s certainly provocative and has sparked some interesting discussions in the past few days. If I were a member of the British aristocracy, then I would laugh along and give this book five stars. But after studying in Cambridge, I feel I’d be letting my side down for trying to enjoy this.

      Whether it’s satirical, provocative or not, this book breaks all four Buddhist rules of “Right Speech” (according to another book I’m reading). I’ll review that next… (5-stars!)

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  2. James, this is the funniest but pointless article you have written. I cannot imagine reading such a satire or wasting time on it but at the same time, I can imagine that you can have thousands of different perspective of what people see or retain from a book. Under a cosmopolitan perspective, this book will help you a lot to stereotype and generalize people.

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    1. Rodrigo, I’d give this book 5 stars for the rich people who want to read it. I’d give it just two stars if it’s for poor people to read.

      This book is the opposite of this: Peruvian rapper Immortal Technique just performed “Rich Man’s World” at the Wall Street protests: http://youtu.be/4_YTP1yZcM8 It’s also satirical, and more provocative than this book yet is based almost on the same theme… the difference is that it’s sung by a socialist Peruvian, and not a rich, white French philosopher. I think you’ll like the song more than the book!

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