Tips for bluffers

2009-02-04 00:00

WHEN publishers send book critics a present entitled How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, is this a pointed gift, or what?

Still, it came at a good time. Before holidays I think about what to read — despite years of evidence to the contrary, I still believe I’ll have time on my hands. I might tackle The Brothers Karamazov or catch up on books that have made a buzz in the past couple of years but passed me by. Of course it never happens. Holidays are full of people telling you that you have run out of tea bags or toilet paper or milk. Or extra people turning up for meals, or people who were supposed to be turning up for meals getting a better offer and going somewhere else. No time for Dostoevsky.

So I dipped into Henry Hitchings’s book, my present from Random House. The author’s thesis is that some people seem to have an opinion on every book that has been published, and so he offers bits of trivia and comments that can be trotted out in the company of these would-be culturati, even if you haven’t read the book. He is pretty catholic in his range of literature, including both the Bible and the Qur’an, and offers good advice about the latter — if you want to talk about it, do so carefully. Probably better to leave it out altogether. He also takes a canter through Greece and Rome, Shakespeare, Proust, the Russians (Dostoevsky — here I come), Henry James and contemporary writers, both literary and popular.

He makes the point that bookish people own many more books than they have read. That strikes a chord. I never have enough bookshelf space, and non-readers regularly ask — “Have you read all these?” — in a tone that suggests if I have, I must be one sad misfit. I haven’t, but I suppose my compulsive need for books has something to do with the terror of ever being caught bookless. What would I do?

Even if publishers think critics never read the books they write about, I was relieved to find Hitchings has a (moderately) good opinion of book reviewers — maybe he is one himself. He reckons reviews are a reliable way of keeping abreast of what’s hot and what’s not, and if you want to be a bluffer, that can be important. And, encouragingly for those of us always so strapped for space that we can’t bang on as much as we might like to, he reckons that the degree of a critic’s engagement with a book is inversely proportional to his or her willingness to distil it down. In other words, short is good.

As someone who has never remembered the punchline of a joke, I don’t suppose I’ll remember the clever things he offers to bluff my way in cultural discussions, but I will hang on to one Dorothy Parker quote. Asked to use the word “horticulture” correctly in a sentence, she said: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” For that alone, this was a present worth having.

Hitchings ends his book with a quiz — and some of the answers are there in his book. So here are three book-related questions to ponder. No answers on a postcard or anything else, please.

1. Whose trousers were apparently so tight that you could count the small change in his pocket?

2. By what name do we usually know the broad-shouldered


3. On whose stomach would we find the words, Quod me nutrit

me destruit, and in a portrait of which playwright do those words also appear? (A clue: the owner of the stomach is more often on the celeb pages than among the books, and the playwright came to a sticky end.)

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