The title of Bayard’s book is obviously compelling. I engaged the book specifically with the interest of learning practical skills that would help me absorb books in different ways in order to make better use of my time for this program. Additionally, parishioners are constantly peddling books to me, very few of which I am either able or interested to read. I average about 4 book recommendations per week from my congregation. It would be helpful for me to know how to engage in conversation with these parishioners about books that interest them, without having to read the entire book, or really any of it for that matter. More importantly, there is a multitude of books that I need to engage without reading, for my doctoral research, and I need the practical, technical skill to do this.
Along with the author’s wit, his driving metaphors from Hamlet, Aristotle, and other literature were entertaining but entirely uninteresting to me given the purpose for which I read the book. Bayard began with a humorous argument aimed to convince the reader that there is no shame in not reading a book that you want to know about and talk about. He picked this topic up again in the section, “Ways of Behaving” and spent a considerable amount of ink in developing clever ivory tower arguments that came across like verbal ninjutsu while lacking common sense. Personally, I have not suffered from this shame of obligation that Bayard spoke about. I have, along with many others, suffered the guilt of acting as though I have read a particular book when I in fact did not. The problem was not my feeling shame, but my dishonest behavior. Or maybe my dishonest behavior was the result of the shame of obligation. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s quite odd to title a chapter, “Ways of Behaving”, but devote most of the chapter’s contents to talking about feelings rather than actual behavior.
The author did not seem to address the issue of truth telling, which is important in any situation, including talking about books you haven’t read. When entering a conversation about a book I haven’t read, it’s not that I should feel shame for not reading the book, but I should feel guilty for basically lying about it. One must then admit to not having read the book before carrying on a conversation about it. Otherwise there seems to be too much deceit at work. This is because in our culture, we are expected to read books that we are talking about. That’s the operating assumption in any meaningful conversation about a book. The author seems to ignore the value of this cultural norm, as though it can simply be disregarded. In other words, if we are to break away from the norm and talk about books we haven’t read, we can be free of this shame not by listening to a pep talk, but rather by simply being honest about what we haven’t actually read.
For instance, the author writes: To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.
This is a locker room pep talk more than it is a reasonable argument. “Truthfulness to ourselves” requires us being truthful to others. It seems as though the author used humor, story and metaphor to wisp the reader into a delightful reading experience and away from any substantive conversation about the ethics that are at stake throughout this book. I found these metaphors, like in many pop leadership books today, boring in their uselessness. For a book that is to be useful for developing practical technique, metaphors from Shakespeare or Aristotle only serve to fill the publisher’s required page numbers while feeding the author’s intellectual ego with the knowledge that he can be clever. When the reader sits down to read this book, there is no reason at that point to be interested in Hamlet. If one wanted to read Hamlet, she could sit by the fire with a paper book and a hot cappuccino. But when she sits at her desk to develop a research skill, she’s not likely interested in Hamlet. So, I learned to quickly do with this book what the author suggests we do with other books, despite the recommendation of Francine Prose in the Forward.
While each of the Ways of Non-reading basically overlap and are therefore difficult to categorize (in other words, they all kind of blended together for me), the sections of the book that will serve me best are the sections on talking about books that I have skimmed and books that I have heard of. For the purpose of my research, I am going to have to be able to effectively skim a multitude of books and I needed practical tools more than a lesson on how to overcome shame. While the practical tools Bayard actually offered were sparse, the truth of statements like this speak greatly of the need to develop these tools: “Many of the books we are led to talk about, and which have, in certain cases, played important roles in our lives, have never actually passed through our hands (although we may sometimes be convinced of the contrary). But the way other people talk to us or to each other about these books, in their texts or conversations, allows us to forge an idea of their contents, and even to formulate a reasonable opinion of them.”
It strikes me that while this statement is likely true, it’s also a call, in my opinion, to actually read these books that have played important roles in our lives, rather than to only know them in conversation. If a book is that important, then surely it’s worth my time to actually read it. Perhaps even this one.
 Bayard, P. (2010). How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read [Kindle iOS version], loc. 1678
 Ibid., loc. 73.
 Ibid., loc. 541.