On books we claim to know everything

On books we claim to know everything

Unfortunately, we have a huge problem as a country. It has reached chronic levels. This problem is that nobody ever says, “I don’t know this.” Whatever the topic, we answer every question that comes along, whether or not we know the answer. 
Let us leave aside the chronic “speaking with authority” problem in sports, politics and economics, when the topic comes to books, literature and the arts, our profound(!) knowledge has no boundaries. 

Generally, we don’t feel the need to check with a written source. We get by with mere hearsay.  

I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair when the recent uproar over Sabahattin Ali’s 1943 novel “Madonna in a Fur Coat” erupted in Turkey. On a popular TV show a presenter pretended to have read the book, believing that it was about the pop singer Madonna. 

There is no need to further discuss a matter that has already been extensively debated. But at least I can say the issue is directly in my line of work. The fact that this book has been on my desk for a long time, and I frequently refer to it, helped me better understand the uproar. 

The book “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” by Pierre Bayard is germane to this scandal. 

Let me warn you in advance, you may come across an acquaintance on every page of this book. You can immediately notice them from their excuses: “It has been years since I’ve read it, I must have forgotten.” 
Admit it, you also do this from time to time. Why? I don’t know, maybe it is embarrassing to just say, “No, I’ve not read it.”

How many people actually confess to not reading books?  

Sometimes, in interviews with popular celebrities, some say they like reading books in their free time but are unable to even say which books they are currently reading. Perhaps they have been struck by amnesia at that moment. 

If we have to speak about a literary book, we wait for the person we generally consider to be a good reader to start the conversation. Then we nod along and support this person with general statements. 

Bayard starts his book with an ironic quotation from Oscar Wilde: “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.” 

There is another chapter that starts as follows: “There are several ways not to read. The most precise one is to never open the cover of a book.”  

You may have come across certain shelves in certain houses where books that have not been read and will never be read are stacked. A bookseller friend of mine once told me that a customer asked for “books that are four meters long that have a nice back cover.” He was clearly talking about a “book lover” who approaches books from a completely decorative point of view. 

Let me tell those readers of mine who will not read Bayard’s book: He gives some excellent examples of playing ignorant when you know best, when you have never read a book but continue to talk about it. This is actually very easy to do. There are so many articles out there on well-known popular writers and best-selling books that you can always find a couple of sentences to say about them. You can easily say, “I don’t like that writer. In his/her last book…” In Turkey you can talk as much as you want without ever reading Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, Orhan Veli Kanık, Cemal Süreya, Oğuz Atay, Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk or Elif Şafak. Just like the lady on the TV show found herself easily talking about “Madonna in a Fur Coat”…

Bayard’s book is very cleverly written. You really should read it, particularly after the recent scandal.