Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen? How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Henry Hitchings

I’m contemplating writing the sequel – ‘Who’s Afraid of Literature? Just go READ the damn things!’

Yes yes, I know. It goes against all my natural principles too. I have never in my entire life pretended to read a book that I hadn’t, and I’m not likely to start now. After a brief flick through of the book in the library though, I saw that it’s not actually about that, or not really. Instead, it’s a nice, brief summing up of a few major (and minor) classics.

A year or so ago, I read How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard and I’ve never read a book I’ve wanted to forcibly feed to the author quite as much. The premise of that particular little gem (and I’m breaking out in hives even typing that sarcastically) is that reading is pointless and the people who don’t read are actually far more intelligent than those that do. I’m not exaggerating, it’s true.

Jane Austen – terrifying, right?

Thankfully though, the premise of Mr. Hitchings book is very different. He states that as such a vast number of books exist, it would be impossible to read every single one of them, and it’s very likely that one day someone you wish to impress will comment on one of those unread volumes. Personally, I still wouldn’t claim to have read it, but at least this book can give you a basic working knowledge of a good few.

It’s not really a book you want to just sit there and read as constantly reading summaries of other books does get repetitive after a while. As a book to just dip into now and again, it’s fairly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Shakespeare and the Qu’ran, although I do admit to skimming through a large portion of the Poetry section. Those are just my particular preferences though.

The chapters about the books I’d already read interested me more than the ones I hadn’t, which I admit defeats the purpose of the book a little. Thinking about it, it makes sense though. If I haven’t read it already, it clearly doesn’t interest me – and if it doesn’t interest me, why would I want to read about it?

I also liked the little literary facts sneaked in between the summaries. I didn’t know that Charlotte Bronte disliked Jane Austen’s novels or that there was any connection between Kant and platypuses (platypi? Now there’s a question I never thought I’d have to ask).

For me, the most important point in this book’s favour was the humility of Mr. Hitchins. In many books about books, especially those regarding classics, the author’s words are underlined with a certain smugness and arrogance that implies they haven’t read a book that wasn’t first published in Latin since they were three and would rather lick a dead seal than read Agatha Christie. I respect Henry Hitchins all the more for admitting that he has read (and enjoyed) The Da Vinci Code and for quoting Terry Pratchett’s attitude to literature.

I’m glad I’ve read it, although equally glad I didn’t buy it. Having gotten through it once, I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to pick it up again. It’s mildly entertaining and has definitely increased me working knowledge of a few greats.

You may also enjoy:

Jane Austen is quite accessible, if you want to make a starton the classics, especially Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.  

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is very short and one of my favourite books of all time.

Just make sure you never ever pick up the book of a similar name by Pierre Bayard.

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