We've all been caught unawares in a social situation, asked what we thought about the latest trendy book, or that classic you should have read. Rather than sweat fearing you might look dumb, here's how you can talk about it even if you haven't read it.

"What Did you think about [insert title of novel you haven't read]?"

Someone asks expectingly. The suddenly you’re sitting at a little wooden table, your little bottom squashed flat against a sculpted plastic chair. There is a blank piece of A4 paper laying before you with an excessively sharpened pencil parallel by its side. A voice echoing somewhere far off toward the front of the elongated room commands: Begin! You take up the pencil and automatically and turn over the single page. There is a line of instruction printed near at top. It reads: Write a big essay on that book you didn’t actually read. Panic!

 

No performances

The fear of the exam is the fear of any situation in which the spotlight is on you are you are unprepared. The anxiety of not being able to perform when you are expected to is ultimately a fear of ridicule: "Look at her! She doesn’t know what she’s on about!" But why should we feel guilty about being unable to perform at someone else's will? A performance requires training! Dancers gruel for months before taking the to stage, actors work for years before a that limelight part. Well there you have it. To be asked about a book you haven’t read is not a performance, you have not been in training and it is certainly is not call for an Academy Award. But even without the book under your belt the conversation needn’t be a total flop. Here are a few literary cues.

 

An internal library

There is a certain cultural expectation that we will have read the greats—The Classics—your Woolfes and your Steins, your Prousts and your Millers. But a classic is a book which people praise and don't read, or so goes the famous quote by a man I never read*. In, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard highlights a key pointer when it comes to this topic: a book is subjective. For as many readers as there are of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, there are as many version of what the book is. Even for those who have not read it there is a version of what it is: book written by a woman with Jamaican heritage; a work of contemporary British literature; one of many products of a critically acclaimed author. This skimming process of thinking about what a book is culturally speaking, in relation to other cultural factors, is illustrated by Bayard as the ‘internal library’ (cue imaginary stray hand fingering book spines on the high-up shelves of our minds.) As a professor of English Literature, he writes, he has not only observed this mode of holding court on literature, but advocates talking ‘around’ the book as a creatively significant act!

 

Dodge the bullet

If thrown such a query as: What did you think about Clockwork Orange? You might skim your internal bookshelf and little imaginary blank post-it note where your cultural information is supposed to be. So you meet the challenge confidently with: Now, where was that author from again? Your inquisitor would either be left in your previous floundering position looking at his equally blank post-it, or they would say: You mean Anthony Burgess? He was from Manchester. Ah! That’s right, you always misremember it as Leeds! and away you go talking about Manchester’s cultural output. If you’re having fun you might brazenly ask your companion if they had felt Manchester’s cultural influence when they first read Burgess’ text. Dodge the bullet. In all probability you are not back in a GCSE literature exam and your bookish friend will no doubt be playing Dodge The Bullet to some extent too!

* “Classic' - a book which people praise and don't read.”

― Mark Twain

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