Skip to Content

Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

How to Talk About Books you Haven’t Read

Author: Pierre Bayard
Translated by: Jeffrey Mehlman
Foreword by: Francine Prose
Originally Published: 2007
Edition Courtney Read Published: 2007

The Story


In this delightfully witty, provocative book, literature professor and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard argues that not having read a book need not be an impediment to having an interesting conversation about it. (In fact, he says, in certain situations reading the book is the worst thing you could do.) Using examples from such writers as Graham Greene, Oscar Wilde, Montaigne, and Umberto Eco, he describes the varieties of “non-reading”-from books that you’ve never heard of to books that you’ve read and forgotten-and offers advice on how to turn a sticky social situation into an occasion for creative brilliance. Practical, funny, and thought-provoking, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read-which became a favorite of readers everywhere in the hardcover edition-is in the end a love letter to books, offering a whole new perspective on how we read and absorb them.

The Response

This book has been on my radar for a few years now, and the concept of it intrigued me. A book that not only champions not-reading but also shows you how to best go about it? I can understand how people in certain industries would need to know about more books than they could possibly read, but I didn’t realize there was enough of a market out there to have a whole book that champions non-reading as well as giving out advice on how to do it. I wanted to know more.

And it was certainly an interesting concept… but I don’t think that was enough to make it a really interesting book. In fact, I will admit that I skimmed most of this book… which, ironically enough is one of the ways that Bayard recommends that you don’t read a book.

See, he has four classification for not-reading books:

  1. Books you don’t know – you know, those books you either have never heard of
  2. Books you have skimmed – books you haven’t read fully
  3. Books you have heard of – books you know of but haven’t actually read
  4. Books you have forgotten – books you’ve read but don’t remember anymore

The whole first third of the book talks about these classifications, citing examples of who does this kind of non-reading (oddly enough, most of these examples were of fictional characters) and why/when this type of non-reading would be done.

The second third of the book touches on types of situations where you may find yourself needing to speak about you haven’t read:

  1. in society
  2. with professors
  3. with the author
  4. with someone you love

In each of these instances you would want to respond in different ways when speaking about books you haven’t read. Of course, the last third of the book looks at how exactly to behave in these situations (and thus, how to talk about books you haven’t read):

  1. don’t be ashamed that you haven’t read the book
  2. impose your ideas on the people you’re speaking to
  3. make up what happens in the book
  4. talk about yourself instead

So… bits and pieces of this book were quite good, but most of it was just skim-worthy. I didn’t agree with a lot of it – including how Bayard goes on about how reading a book makes you completely unobjective to it, and how (especially when critiquing it) you are better able to speak about a book if you know only what you learned from other sources. Hmm.

The Bottom Line

It was intresting… not sure if it’s a keeper, and not sure how much I agree with… but it was an interesting read if nothing else.

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 7:33 pm April 30, 2012.
Category: Non-Fiction
Book Author(s):

  • Kailana

    I actually found this book very boring… haha. Skim-worthy all around.