How to talk about books you haven’t read

We have all been in that situation where we are surrounded by our highly cultured and intelligent friends and they start talking about a great book. Often, it’s a book that you have never read, so you feel rather left out of the conversation, because you have nothing interesting to say about it. Over the past week at the Mellon funded Warwick-Newberry summer school this has happened on a very regular basis. It seems as if almost everybody has read more than me, knows more about Renaissance literature than me and has more interesting things to say about it than me. Although this is hardly surprising given that I tend to study the seventeenth, rather then sixteenth, centuries. Despite this, I have been able to refine the art of talking about books that I haven’t read. Having been pretending to be culturally aware through most of the conversations this week and in this process trying to hide my literary ignorance it has given me a few ways in which it is possible to talk about books that you haven’t read. This is a skill I think that is valuable for anyone who works with lots of books, and it is a form of non-reading that I intend to apply to my one research, as I mentioned once before. The following list gives five steps that can be followed to help you talk about books you haven’t read.

1. Remember that most people can’t remember most of what they have read

This is the crucial point to remember as it is what can give you confidence in what you say about the book. No reader is impervious to the process of forgetting a book, not even the most vociferous and sharp minded people can retain all that they have read. The philosopher Montaigne spoke of this when he said that

“It is no great wonder if my book follows the fate of other books, and if my memory lets go of what I give as of what I receive.”(Montaigne, Essays, p. 494)

Montaigne was aware that most of what he read, and even what he wrote he would eventually forget. Because we forget most of what we read, when we talk about books we have to create an imagined book to talk about. We have to build up what we think it was about and all of these imaginary books we reconstruct in our minds are different each time – as they are built out of a few fragments that we have found from the ocean of memories oblivion. This is comforting for those of us, who have not read everything in the English literary canon as it means that even the most confident and erudite individuals that we know are really only talking about the few fragments that they can remember of a book, which is often very little. These few fragments are used to fabricate a book in their mind, to recreate what they imagine the book is about and what it contains. We who have not read the book have also fabricated a book, the only difference is that we are building it out of information outside of the text, and they are using information from within the text. They are using their memory to construct an idea of what the book was about, they recall memorable scenes, characters, and passages to build up the book again. Whilst, we (non-readers) draw upon a cultural memory that transmits the same information to us, that we can use to construct a mental book.We need to remember that there is little difference between a book we have forgot and a book we have not read, in both cases we are both talking about imagined books one from our memory the other from other peoples information.

2. Know the Books Location

The meaning of a book is not contained entirely within its pages, it is also contained with where it is situated. As I have discussed in my exploration on the impact of EEBO on the meaning of a book. Location is important in understanding a text. For a true reader it is not any specific texts that matters, rather, it is the totality of literature that matters. It is the dynamic system of intertextual links between various books that really matters.

‘the secret to a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and the table of contents. Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian.’ (The Man Without Qualities, p503)

If we are able to grasp where the book sits in a wider system of books we are able to talk about it with greater clarity and understanding. For instance, if we can situate works as being part of a literary movement and a bigger conversation we can gain insights into it that allow us to talk about it. A great example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, if we can place it as being part of the Romantic movement, that itself was a reaction to a rational Enlightenment we can already gain insights into it that can help us talk about it. As a reaction against Enlightenment it was concerned with questions of the role of scientific knowledge and the god-like powers that it seemed to be giving to scientists. Whilst its subtitle ‘the modern prometheus’ situates it in a tradition of books that question mankind’s thirst for knowledge such as Dr Faustus, and Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost that all draw upon the greek legend of Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy had also written a poem regarding the greek character Prometheus called ‘Prometheus Unbound’ in which he talks about the struggle of Prometheus after he steals fire from the Gods to give to mankind. Already by situating the text amongst these books we are able to talk about the book without really knowing the details of the text. We can talk about Mary Shelley using Frankenstein to question ideas of progress and the aims of science, to explore concepts such as the role of science in society. The fact that she is comparing science to a pandora’s box that opens up knowledge but brings with it a variety of problems and diseases. It should be remembered that often we are not able to situate the book as precisely as I have here when we are talking, but as long as we can situate it in even a broad area of literature we are on the way to being able to talk about it with confidence and a degree of knowledge.

3. Know what others have said about the book

Once we have situated the book in a literary position, it is important to consider the opinions of others, about the book. Is it a book that we have heard people generally speak highly of, or is it one that is often derided? By paying attention to what other people say about the book, it provides a pathway for us to follow into understanding the books contents. The opinions of others can be used to help us construct our mental book that will allow us to talk about the book. This process of using the opinion of others to construct the contents of a book is wonderfully demonstrated by Umberto Eco in his book The name of the Rose. In the book, the Monk Baskerville is sent to a monastery to investigate a suspicious suicide. In the course of the investigation a central role is played by the mythical work by Aristotle in Comedy. This work is assumed to not exist, but has been written by several academics and scholars. The character in the book is able to construct what Aristotle’s second volume of Poetics was about by bringing together all the opinions on it, and its place within the works of Aristotle to understand its content without reading it, as he said:

“Gradually, this second book took shape in my mind as it had to be. I could tell you almost all of it, without reading the pages that were meant to poison me.” (Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p471)

By paying attention to what others have said about the book, we like Baskerville, are able to allow the unread book to take shape in our mind. We are able to draw upon the experience of others to get a picture of what is inside the book. You don’t need to go out and read Fifty Shades of Grey to understand what it is about. Enough people have spoken about it, and its erotic nature, to allow me to have a good idea of what it is about and what the content is. You can talk about the fact that it is based on Twilight fan fiction, that whilst still not having very developed characters, it is certainly an improvement of your average erotic fiction, such as anything by Mills and Boon. Or its clunky prose and its poor treatment of sadomasochism.  Simply by paying attention and being aware of the opinion of others, it helps to enable us to reconstruct the book in order to talk about it.

4. Know the basic content

Now most of us will at least have some awareness of the basic content of classic texts. Knowing the basic structure of the book, the characters that are in it, the setting, the plot, the chapters can all help you to talk about the book, even if you haven’t read it. This information can be picked up from glancing at the contents pages of books. But this does not help you when you are in a conversation. However, if people are talking about a book then they will be mentioning all of these various elements, by picking up on them and engaging with them it can give the impression that you know more about the book then you do. Graham Greene gave a wonderful example of how to do this in his book The Third Man, the character in the book, a writer of western fiction, is mistaken for one of the great writers of the period and invited to speak about his books to a room of his fans. Baxter, has not read any of the books that he is forced to talk about. He manages this situation through confidence, and playing upon the fact that in the discussions about books its never really about the details of the books.

For instance, no one discusses what exactly Tolstoy meant on page 234 of Anna Karenina, really most people are more concerned about what the book means – its broader context, then its specific details. We want to know about how the tale of Anna’s broken home and her affair with Count Vronsky help us to understand human experience rather then a precise semantic discussion on the structure of her dialogue. In these discussions about its bigger meaning there are many interpretations and meanings that can be given. Do we think that Anna should resist the cultural pressure of Russian decorum and stay with her family and not leave with Count Vronsky, or should she remain faithful to her family? Everyone can discuss this as it is a theme that is common to all of us, we can all relate to it in some way and express an opinion on it – Anna is simply a symbolic role that allows us to discuss a bigger theme, namely the tragedy of love and marriage. Once you are able to connect a book to a wider problem, to connect Anna to the tension between extra-marital love and marriage, then you can talk about it with greater ease.

5. Don’t be ashamed

Its easy to feel ashamed about the massive gaps in the books that we haven’t read. Perhaps this is because when we express cultural ignorance it is greeted with ‘what do you mean you haven’t read War and Peace, its a classic.’ Yes, it is certainly a classic, but it is also over 1,500 pages long, and is written in a very dense historical style. So yes, I have chosen not to spend months of my life working through war and peace, and I do not feel in any way bad about that and no one should. Many great writers have been proud of the fact that they have not read many of the classics. Such as John Leckie, who wrote The Bluffers guide to the Classics. When the BBC had John Leckie converse with a Professor on War and Peace, most people thought that Leckie was the expert. The key to being able to bluff that you have a read a book he attributes to clarity and confidence:

“People assume clarity is the result of knowledge. I wish it were. Sound convinced by yourself and you will sound convincing.”

If you are confident about the fact that you can express an opinion on a book you haven’t read then you will be convincing. As the literary critic Valery demonstrates, we can be unashamed about not reading a work as he says regarding Proust:

“Even if I had never read a line of Proust’s vast work, the mere fact that two people with minds as different as Gide and Léon Daudet were agreed about its importance would have been sufficient to allay all doubts.” (Paul Valery, Masters and Friends, p295)

Valery had not read any of Prousts work in its entirety as he says in once passage, he simply picks up and reads fragments of it. The fact that he had not read it, he did not think stopped him from having an opinion of it, or from being able to speak about it. Like Paul Valery we should not be ashamed about books we haven’t read, but not reading them does not mean we are condemned to silence about them. We can know just as much about the book, and understand it just as well as many who have read the book we just need to be confident about it.

The Example of Jorge Luis Borges

The basic secret to talking about books you haven’t read is an ability to construct a mental copy of the book mentally. The greatest example of what we should do is seen in the work of Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was a vociferous reader, and had read an incredible amount of books. The process that he went through in writing his short stories is the process that allows us to talk about books we haven’t read.

“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.”

Borges imagined a series of these fictional books and then spoke about these books. He spoke about books that he had never read, books that didn’t even exist. In order to talk about books we haven’t read then we need to imagine what these books are like. The better we are able to construct this book by remembering that:

“A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”

The better we will be able to talk about books we haven’t read. But mor importantly we will understand literature better through this process. By learning to imagine books and situate them amongst others we will have a mental library that can guide us through the millions of books that is the English Literature.


In order to try and demonstrate this method. With the exception of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, all the books referred to in this post are ones that I haven’t read. Judge for yourself the extent to which I have been able to talk about them without reading them.


4 responses to “How to talk about books you haven’t read

    • Thanks for the citation. How strange that the email address isn’t working. I’ll try and get it sorted. I’ll send you and email.

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