A couple of months ago, I saw a book at the Bottom Shelf that looked like it might come in really handy: Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read.
See, I participate in two book clubs ( the RS Book Group and the Library Book Club), and it seems like many times the members of these groups are always choosing these depressing-but-ultimately-uplifting real life stories based on horrible historic events or conditions. I guess the purpose is to reaffirm to oneself the resilience or the indomitability of the human spirit. But my opinion is that I get enough depressing real life stories from the news and sometimes even from the people around me, so I don't necessarily want to spend my leisure time reading more of the same. If I read about the indomitable human spirit, I want it to be because the people involved have survived the oppression of, and ultimately overthrown, some evil sorcerer who has ruled them with an iron fist and a really large army of space trolls for a thousand years.
Well, last week the Library book club met to discuss Sarah's Key, a novel which centers mostly on the Vichy French government's roundup and deportation of Jews during World War II. I had already read about this event in a non-fiction context, and I wasn't eager to revisit it in fiction. How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read would have come in really handy. Unfortunately, the day I saw it at the Shelf, and just as I was about to snag it, another volunteer spied it and picked it up for himself.
So, when faced with Sarah's Key (and with a couple of other books we've discussed in those groups in the past), I did what anyone else reluctant to read the book would do in an effort to keep my sanity while still appearing to be familiar with the reading material: I looked up a plot synopsis on a couple of book review blogs. That helped with the basics, but there were several issues I had to find out about in a little more detail if I didn't want to be responding to comments and questions with blank stares of incomprehension (which has happened in the past and was kind of embarrassing). For instance, I thought it important to be familiar with the following concepts:
a) what was the fate of Sarah's brother?
b) what was the fate of Sarah herself?
c) what was Julia's decision regarding her pregnancy? and
d) what is this key everyone's talking about anyway and why did Sarah have it?
So, in addition to the reviews, I also read some of the comments about the book on goodreads (a valuable source of spoilers).
Because of this preparation (which took less than an hour), I was thus able during our meeting to appear intelligent, or at least cognizant, when these matters were discussed, as well as to provide our group with the insight (gleaned from one of the blogs I visited) that the key and the locked door were symbolic of things locked in the memories or in the past of several of the characters, and that they needed to find the key to access these things in order to move on with their lives (SPOILER: or in the case of Sarah, not).
So I was able to use principles (apparently those from section III of Bayard's book) for talking about books I haven't read from a book I haven't read.
Of course, there have been times when I told the members of the group that I thought a book sounded stupid and I just wasn't going to read it. That also works.