At some point, we’ve all be there: We were assigned to read a book and, for whatever reason, we decided we could better spend our time doing something else. Whether it be because we were just put it off for too long, we began the book and were bored to tears once we started it, or life simply got in the way, we’ve all had to talk about a book that we haven’t read.
I was recently talking to a friend who had joined a book club. She was explaining to me her amusement at showing up to the club meeting and realizing that she was the only one who had actually read the book. The meeting ultimately revolved around gossip and talking about their perceptions of the book rather than actually talking about the book itself. She shared with me her shock that this so-called “book club” could actually talk about ideas that were relevant to what they were reading despite the fact many had never even opened the book.
The reality is that each of us do this at some point. We have a general idea of what we expect to find within a book and can make an educated guess on what we would find within it. The method of reading that Bayard proposes in How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read is comparable with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. Adler proposes that there are different levels of reading, and one level in particular sticks out: Inspectional reading. Inspectional reading at its core is the ability to quickly read through a book to get a general idea of what the book is about. If one is not going to read a book, one must be smart about it.
Readers need to know what’s expected of them when they are asked to read a book. When I was studying my Master’s degree, different professors had different expectations. My church history professor in particular was very strict when it came to reading. To make sure that we read the material, his test and exams would pull out vey minute details from the reading that could be easily missed if you didn’t read the book. Others are focused on broad concepts that as long as you understood the purpose of the book and its main ideas, you could get away without reading the book in its entirety.
It was in these broad, generalized classes that I found myself being able to shine. A big reason for this was that if I didn’t read the book, I would listen to what others were saying. When I understood the general concepts that they were speaking of, I began to formulate my own ideas and would be able to contribute to the conversation. However, there were of course those moments when someone would ask a very specific question and I would have to make something up off the top of my head. Even then, I hear Bayard’s words echoing in my head: “Our relation to books is a shadowy place haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters.”
During my undergraduate studies, I was seen as the “teacher’s pet” for one particular English teacher after writing my first college essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy literature (which, ironically, at that point I had only read The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring). Although I had not read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, by listening to what people have said and doing my own research on it, I felt that I had a solid grasp on the content, the story, the characters, and the themes. In fact, the amount of time I spent researching and watching the films over and over again was more than it took me to read the books once I finally settled down to read them. Because of this, when anyone would bring up anything Lord of the Rings related, I could engage in intelligent conversation with them and you would think I had actually read them.
This came to a climax my junior year of college when I was taking a class on William Shakespeare. After struggling through reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I realized I needed a new strategy if I was going to continue being this teacher’s favorite. That’s when I turned to St. Sparknotes, the Patron Saint of BS. It was in this treasure trove that I found lists of characters and what they represented, lists of themes that I could pull from, and those oh so blessed summaries and key quotes. With the favor of St. Sparknotes on my side, I was confident that I could ace that class. I still skimmed the plays, but began to rely on connections with my own life, summaries, and dialogue with other students to formulate my ideas.
One of my favorite stories from college came from this class. One of my good friends was also in this course and we were often competing to see who could come up with the most “original” thoughts. When we studied King Lear, I was in the library reading through the first scene and had a random thought: The way King Lear was presented reminded me a lot of my great grandmother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was a random connection that gave me pause, and when my friend stopped by to see me reading it I shared my thoughts. She raised an eyebrow and said that it seemed like a stretch, so I shrugged and continued my skim read of the play. A week later when we were in class, we were watching a film adaptation of King Lear. After pausing a scene to talk discuss what was happening, another classmate piped up in the back saying that as he watched the scene, he was reminded of his grandfather who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A grin crept on my face as a I shot my friend a knowing look. Her nostrils flared as the professor explained that there was a recent strain of scholarship that was focusing on that interpretation. When class was finished, she looked at me and said, “You’re ridiculous” before storming out. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at her reaction.
Bayard introduces this idea as the “inner book,” which he describes as “the set of mythic representations, be they collective or individual, that come between the reader and any new piece of writing, shaping his reading without his realizing it.” In other words, a book’s reputation often precedes it. Books carry with them a mythos that in some capacity influences a reader. We can see the associations that books carry with other books or ideas simply by recognizing them.
This notion of the inner book also attributes itself to Adler and Van Doren’s notion of “synoptical reading”, which is when a reader is able to compare and contrast the ideas of a book with others. The relationship between one book and another is just as important as one’s analysis of the book one is reading. It could be that when one reads a book, it triggers a memory a different book with similar ideas. These memories can act as the foundation upon which we can dialogue and discuss a book.
The question of, “Do I read this or not?” is one that will always follow us. Is our time best spent on this book, or would it be better spent on another? Using simple tools such as looking through the table of contents or even the title of a book can give us a window into whether the book is appropriate for us or not. Though at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, “Why am I reading this book?” The answer to this question will ultimately inform you of not just how you’re going to read a book, but whether you will read it or not.
 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1972), 17-18.
 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), loc. 143.
 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, 82.
 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book, 19.