It turns out the trick to good literary conversation isn't reading books - it's just being able to talk about them.
Pierre Bayard, a professor of literature at Paris University, has written How to talk about books you haven't read, a bluffer's guide to literary chatting (reviewed by Barry Oakley in The Weekend Australian's Review this weekend).
According to Bayard, it's not the book itself that's important, it's the ideas - and the connections between them - that give literature value. For this reason, it's easy to talk about books you haven't read if you have an opinion on the ideas they are exploring.
Bayard says even the most thorough reading of a book soon shrinks into a summary. It's a reasonable point: you can spend a week reading a book and then explain it to someone in less than a minute. He says it then disappears even further over time (unless, of course you have a blog!).
It's an interesting viewpoint, but I can't quite embrace the idea that reading books isn't important. What would be the point in writing a book if people only read the synopsis and then launched into a discussion about it? What's the value of the author's viewpoint if nobody reads it? And if only one person needs to read a book to be able to summarise it for everyone else, who decides who gets to do the actual reading?
Bit too hard really. I like the idea that people read books, taking from them what they need or want (consciously and sub-consciously) and then those people further discuss the themes and ideas to expand and explore their own understanding. Discussion about literary ideas should complement reading, not replace it.
But then, of course, I've just blogged about ideas in a book I haven't read ...