Posted by: Kenn Hermann | November 20, 2007

Discussing Books I Haven’t Read

There I was, an eager, expectant, and very naive history grad student in my very first seminar class in colonial American history. The professor barely took the roll before he handed us a 30 page single-spaced ditto-sheet bibliography and gruffly announced: “Here, read these.” No directions through the maze of references. No encouragement. Just read. I looked around me for some clues, but every other student seemed to take it in stride. I felt sheer terror! Read all of these? Impossible! And this was just the first of three seminars I was taking that semester. How would I manage the reading lists in those other seminars? I didn’t have a clue that I was being introduced to the time-honored hazing ritual of graduate school: forced to read far more books and journal articles than would be humanly possible in a dozen lifetimes.

All of those memories came flooding back to me when I read a review of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday. Bayard, a French literature professor and psychoanalyst, deconstructs the elaborate illusions we create to impress others with all of the books we have read. It is a needless charade, he argues. No one is omniscient. No book reviewer can possibly claim to have read everything else by the author before writing a review of her new book. Who hasn’t fudged? Who hasn’t skimmed the book while standing in the aisle at Border’s? Who hasn’t read the dustjacket blurb as a substitute for reading the entire book? Who hasn’t listened to Charlie Rose interview an author and taken that as an adequate substitute for reading the book itself? Who hasn’t confused the film with the book by the same title? There is nothing to be emabarrassed about in these behaviors, Bayard counsels. They are simply multiple — and creative — ways in which we construct meaning in a literate culture. (Here I am constructing my own meaning based on a review of the book by a reviewer who quite possibly hasn’t read the book either.)

If only I had read such a book all those decades ago, much of my graduate school guilt about all of the books I hadn’t read would have been assuaged. It never occurred to me that my professors hadn’t read all of the books they assigned or were on their reading lists; they spoke so knowingly about them. Since I could not possibly read all of the books in those thick bibliographies, I had to devise my own secret strategies for discussing books I hadn’t read. I had to find some way to cheat the system. It was like hiding a deep, dark secret in my life. How long could I get away with it? Who would find me out? Could I trust my friends with whom I colluded to keep our secret? What would happen if one of them betrayed me and blurted out my secret in front of the entire class? How often I had the graduate student’s worst nightmare: called on to discuss a book I hadn’t read!

Over the years of graduate school and professional life I must say that I have perfected a fair number of strategies for discussing, teaching, and even writing about, books I haven’t read — including many books on my bookshelves. Countless are those I have impressed with my wide reading. I have even lied to my mother-in-law about the books I hadn’t read. Many years ago, upon scanning my over-flowing library, she sarcastically asked: “have you read all of these?” I, of course, said “yes.” Now, thanks to Pierre Bayard, I am freed from my long-repressed guilt for these shameful practices. Aaah, but for those current graduate students hoping I will divulge my secrets: not a chance. Get your own. The Professors Guild mandates that professors never teach their students how to discuss, write, or teach about books they haven’t read.



  1. I would like to see a continuation of the topic

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