How to talk about content you haven’t read

You won’t read this post. If I’m lucky, you might skim it. I’m good with that. But please: don’t read it well.

There’s a book called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. I haven’t read all of it. And I think it’s excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I can take its principles and apply it to a blog post.

unreadI think the author would be proud of me. Pierre Bayard is a smarty-pants professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and a psychoanalyst. Not exactly a slacker.

The main theme of the book is that there isn’t any possible way to read (defined as complete, beginning to end, comprehended reading) all the books civilized people are expected to read. Especially since there are thousands of new books published every day. It’s an exponential problem. So we’ve created “an oppressive system of obligations” that has generated “widespread hypocrisy.”

(Smarty pants.)

What truly matters is that you understand where great works of literature fit in the cannon. How they’ve contributed to the dialog of our collective library.

And we can do this by not reading well.

Nothing could be more apropos and helpful for those of us who insist on trying to wade through today’s grotesque expanse of digital dossiers. Messy and growing exponentially. Futilely trying to generate itself at the same rate of the life and place it’s trying to document, creating an oppressive system indeed.

Thanks to M. Bayard, I’m inspired to do my part in ending the hypocrisy. To come out of the closet and admit that I don’t read a lot of stuff online.

Liberté! Vive le…. not reading!

Mashable tweeted a link to a story about the five companies that are the biggest threat to Twitter. I didn’t even click it.

A few days later a friend asked me over breakfast what I thought the future of Twitter would be. I really have no idea. But I was able to posit, confidently, that apparently there are several companies posing a threat to Twitter and growth always draws you away from your customers and customer conversations is what Twitter is all about and what has made them great in the first place.

A blog about the top 10 secrets to good search engine optimization? Once I determine if the person who wrote it is legit, I’ll bookmark it (along with the other thousand or so permalinks on this very subject). I’ll to refer it later if/when I have a client project to which it applies.

An exposé on Andrew Sullivan in The Economist? Forget it. That gets barely skimmed, then tweeted in case someone else has the patience. But if someone brings up Sullivan at a networking event, I’m ready.

“The Economist recently wrote a lengthy article on him. How he defies stereotypes, and his very interesting background. Gay, Catholic-conservative, from an off-the-beaten-path town in England. Really defies expectations for someone so immensely popular. Maybe that’s why he is so popular: he transcends categories. Do you read his blog?”

M. Bayard has an excellent way of annotating referenced books in an effort to encourage transparency and quality not-reading. I think we could institute something similar on the web. His system follows, only I’ve substituted “Content” for “Book” and the corresponding “C” for “B:”

UC: content unknown to me
SC: content I have skimmed
HC: content I have heard about
FC: content I have forgotten
++: extremely positive opinion
+: positive opinion
-: negative opinion
–: extremely negative opinion

I’d add to his list:

YC: Yet-to-read/skim this content
DC: Desire to read/skim this content
SEC: Someone else please read/skim this content then blog succinctly about it so I’ll know more of what it’s about.

(And of course, in our world, “read/skim” means, “view/fast-forward through” or “listen to/ fast-forward through.”)

Honest and transparent. Think of the tweets alone:

  • Mashable blog post on Twitter competitors. tinyurl/etc. SC+
  • Long, in-depth Economist expose on Andrew Sullivan. tinyurl/etc. SEC++
  • New tips on search engine optimization. tinyurl/etc. DC-
  • @followerofyours You should check out Seth Godin. Lots of posts about naming a company. HC

A friend had a great blog post (++) on de-anonymize-ing Twitter accounts based on data from tweets. He’s as smart of a guy as I’ve ever known. He can absorb information faster than a tweet can tell you what someone’s having for breakfast.

I was unsurprised that he admitted not having read the entire article upon which his post was based. He came clean about it with a sentence, but he didn’t need to.

You’re a mortal, my friend. Reference the article, SC+. Done.

Go pick up M. Bayard’s book. It’s a good skim.