183. How to Feign Competence While Talking About Books You Haven’t Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre BayardPublished in 2009, Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read answers the question of whether or not it’s possible, and acceptable to give an informed opinion about books you haven’t read, and offers 12 proven techniques to manage the discussion unscathed.

Modern society places undue expectations upon people, namely that:

  1. You read in general, and that every literate human is obliged to do so
  2. You have read all of the top, essential, all-time best selling and ‘must read’ classic books from your culture, epoche, and/or industry
  3. You have read those books very thoroughly from cover to cover
  4. As a result, you’re capable of extensively talking about those books,
  5. Upon offering your opinion about a book or author, that you have sufficiently performed steps 2-4 above. Otherwise your opinion is not justified.

If you don’t perform expectations 1&2, you’ll be thought of as ignorant and uncultured. Fail to perform expectation 3, and you’ll be thought of as lazy. God forbid if you fail to perform expectations 4&5, you’ll be labeled a liar and hypocrite.

With such heavy expectations placed upon us, it’s no wonder languages have evolved to contain sophisticated linguistic devices such as rhetoric and logical fallacies to allow people to engage in conversations and assert their opinion without being seen as either ignorant or a liar, and allow politicians to give the impression of promising the world to you.

It’s also no wonder that Wikipedia maintains a working list of over 30 different types of lies and counting, of which barefaced lie, bluffing, half-truth, and lying by omission are listed among the top 20, abeit alphabetically.

As an author, professor of literature and connoisseur of psychology, Pierre Bayard often finds himself in situations where he must either competently discuss books and authors or suffer irreversable consequences to his reputation and career. Pierre’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read offers 12 ways to successfully navigate your next public discussion about books you haven’t read, as well has how to navigate situations where you are expected to contribute meaningfully to the dialogue.

Redefining ‘books you haven’t read.’

Books fall into one of several categories:

  • Books you’ve never heard of, and therefore haven’t read
  • Books you have heard of, and haven’t skimmed or read
  • Books you have heard of, and remember having read
  • Books you have heard of, and remember having skimmed
  • Books you have heard of, and have forgotten having skimmed or read

Informed opinion meets modern information overload.

“We are deluged with information. We have to process now three times as much data as we would have done 50 years ago. We’re bombarded with tweets, with emails – a state of continuous disruption – and that’s bad for our decision making and bad for our thinking.” – Noreena Hertz

In his talk Death to Bullshit for Creative Mornings, Brad Frost points out that, according to the number of ISBN numbers issued per year in the US, as of 2010 there were 129,864,880 books in existance, of which 10% had been published in the year prior.

With that many books out there, and even more being created every day, it is impossible to be able to keep track of them, let alone read them and understand how they and their author relate to one another in context.

Technique 1 of 12: Understand context

Ask any competent librarian where a particular book can be found, and within seconds he or she can not only tell you the exact floor, aisle, shelf, row, and section to find it under, he or she can also give you a brief synopsis of the book as well as other books related to the topic of the book in question.

How? Through catalogues and books about books. Library catalogues such as the Dewey Decimal System and online search engines such as Google have made it possible to understand the correlation between any particular subject, book, and author in relation to other subjects, books, and authors.

Norena Hertz quote on information overload on brainyquote.com

(Modified screenshot taken from BrainyQuote on 28 March 2016)

Even with the above Noreena Hertz quote, the masterminds behind BrainyQuote.com were thorough enough to include the quote’s name, profession, date of birth, related authors and topics of discussion. The only crucial piece of information missing from this page is the source of the quote, were one to feel inclined to do some fact checking.

Nevertheless, this information alone is enough to nod your way through pretty much any in-depth discussion around the author, or to divert the discussion onto similar, related authors or topics you are familiar with; especially if you find yourself in a discussion with other people who also had never heard of the author and who, like you, were faking.

Armed with the above information, for instance, you could easily pass unchallenged though a conversation by commenting on:

  • How the author’s gender, age and nationality with regard to the digital age led Noreena to make this assertion.
  • How Noreena’s pre-digital birth and upbringing may have lead to her opinion, and how generation Z (today’s generation) are coping with this reality.
  • How the reality of this quote has affected your industry, job, or company.
  • What precisely does Noreena mean by ‘continuous disruption,’ and how much information one can manage before becoming ‘deluged with information.’
  • A story or experience you have as it relates to Noreena’s quote.
  • Digital trends you have noticed or read about that confirm or refute Noreena’s assertion.
  • Your opinion on whether Noreena’s assertion will remain true in the future.
  • How Amazon’s algorithm may help or hinder Noreena’s book sales
  • Other…

Technique 2 of 12: Rely on shallow and deep knowledge

It is for this reason all of the advertising, marketing and public relations professionals I’ve interviewed thus far come from two different schools of thought:

  1. Maintaining a vast and shallow understanding on many different subject matters allows you to make a plethora of connections and associations, allowing you to jump from topic to topic with ease.
  2. Maintaining a deep and narrow understanding of a few subject matters allows you to competently approach the topic from your background and specialist status, acknowleding a lack of competence in one subject, but compensating with extensive competence in another.

For more techniques on talking about subjects you’re unfamiliar with, watch the lectures:

Also, refer to the book The Full Facts Of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland.

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