To read or not to read, that is the question. At least that seems to be the question posed by Pierre Bayard in his book How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Bayard draws our attention to an obvious but often overlooked reality; we can’t read everything and we immediately begin to forget that which we have read. My decision to read his book meant that I was choosing not to read many other books. Was it worth the investment of my time or should I have read something else? Is it ok to not read? We live in the age of information, but we also live in the age of over-information and mis-information. Not reading is not an option, it is a reality of life.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but maybe this is not entirely true. Growing up, I was taught to clean up my plate and read books cover-to-cover. I am now an adult that is overweight and feels guilty not finishing a book once I have started it. The reality is that eating everything on my plate keeps me from being as physically healthy as I could be and spending too much time meticulously reading a book prevents me from engaging in many other books.
I love the quote from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities that Bayard uses to describe a good librarian, “‘The secret of 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,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.’” The librarian does not read everything nor does nor does he neglect to read the most important things. To be a good librarian, it is not necessary, beneficial even possible to try to read all the volumes in the library. To be a good librarian, one must know about the books and where they fit in the larger body of printed text and read only what is essential to helping him or her achieve that objective. The real question therefore is not “to read or not to read”, it is rather choosing what to read and what not to read.
My nephew is a commercial pilot. If I ask him a question about an aircraft that he has never flown, it is ok for him to be very general and share what he has heard about it and even make personal commentaries based on his experience as a pilot. He may not know everything about the particular airplane, but his experience gives him a more informed response than I could give. If however, I ask him about the plane he flies everyday, I would be horror-stricken to have him say, “I don’t really know that much about it. I have read other manuals about planes from the same manufacturer but not about this one. I have no special training on this plane, but if there is a problem, I’ll just wing it.” He is expected to have a high level of expertise regarding the airplanes he flies. He cannot cut corners on his knowledge and skills regarding these specific planes, but he is not expected to invest the same amount of time learning about other models of aircraft. His expertise can however, allow him to speak very intelligible about other aircraft, especially to a per on who has limited aviation knowledge.
I believe that this is a key issue in talking about books you have not read. The more we become selective and focused in choosing the limited amount of books to read, the better prepared we will be to glean valuable insights from the books we have not read make meaningful comments and observations about them. In time, we can read fewer books while still benefiting from them. “Being culturally literate means being able to get your bearings quickly in a book, which does not require reading the book in its entirety—quite the opposite, in fact. One might even argue that the greater your abilities in this area, the less will it be necessary to read any book in particular.”
I often work with adult students from cultural backgrounds in which reading is not emphasized. I have talked with students who say they have never read a book that was not part of an assignment. While I will continue to help them connect with books that they really should read, perhaps I need to begin teaching them how “not to read”. Instead of quilting students who aren’t reading perhaps it is time to teach the skills of skimming, browsing, reading tables of content, learning from what others have to say, applying previous knowledge of the author, and yes, even judging a book by its cover.
 Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (p. 7). (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.) Kindle Edition. p47
 Ibid., p7
 Ibid., p. 14.