How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – Henry Hitchings

Yet another non fiction book this year, it seems like I’m on a roll. I bought it during my book buying spree in November, triggered by Amnesty Book Sale. I found it in £1 second hand bookshop, it was basically new, the cheeky title interested me and here we are. I was also interested because my grandfather had this knack for getting into heated discussions about books he had not read, so I thought I may find out how it’s done.

The book was not really what I expected, not in a bad sense. I thought it will be light and full of jokes about books, something maybe even slightly silly. It was full of anecdotes for sure, but also a book full of love for books. Hitchings starts with pondering why we read and write books at all, what functions literature fulfills in our lives. Then he moves on to chapters devoted to specific authors and books. He does not offer a jokey synopsis of the book, instead analysis of each book from various angles, including its social perception.

Hitchings throws his net wide, starting with Jane Austen (I must shamefully admit I still haven’t read any of her books, I cannot convince myself because of all the movie adaptations), moving on to Homer and Vergil, then Joyce, Dante and Shakespeare, touching on Bible and Qur’an, then on to Proust, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, nineteenth century novel, the great American novel, poetry, philosophy, science and popular books.

For a book of just over 200 pages it covers a lot of ground. He writes about books with love and passion, but also admits that some of the ‘classics’ are utterly unreadable, which makes one wonder how do they become classics in the first place and if their ‘unreadability’ contributes to their status. His musings about translations of Russian literature made me think if for example a Polish translation stands a better chance of reflecting the original than English, purely because the language and its structures are a lot more similar to the original.

Another thing he considers is how publicly acceptable it is to be ignorant about science in our societies. People even buy scientific books but never read them and openly admit that, while they struggle a lot more to admit they don’t know the first thing about Shakespeare. When we get to popular fiction Hitchings analyses how on one hand those books are a guilty pleasure, but on the other if one doesn’t read them it can also lead to awkward situations. Also how a bestseller status of a book often has more to do with the ‘right time’ than with the book’s merit.

I still didn’t learn how to pull off my grandfather’s trick of convincingly discussing a book I haven’t read, but this was a great books for book lovers nonetheless.

Have you ever discussed a book you haven’t read?

Quotes from How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

3 thoughts on “How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – Henry Hitchings

  1. Deepika Ramesh

    This is an interesting post, Jo. Chetan Bhagat, an Indian writer, is celebrated and equally loathed. I do not like his stories and writing. But youngsters love him and he deserves the credit for making young India read English books. I have debated with many readers without reading some of his books. To my defense, I have read a couple of his books. But I tell myself that that’s enough to thrash his work. 😉


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