Who’s Afraid of Judging Books by Their Covers?

I did something stupid.

I mean, I’ve done plenty of stupid things, but this was just the most recent. Except that it was about two weeks ago, so it probably isn’t even the most recent. And there’s no lesson to draw from it, and no reason why I should blog about it. But it made me laugh and it may do the same for you. Or it may at least make you feel less stupid and thus better about yourself. And I’m a glutton for punishment. So apropos of nothing… here goes.

I joined an online reading group, discussing issues about philosophy, faith and culture. We decided that we would read through J.K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism and begin our first session by talking about issues raised in chapter 1.

I dutifully ordered Who’s Afraid of Relativism – a second hand copy, since I’m a cheapskate, and I like the fact that having an already-dog-eared version tends to make me look like I’ve read more of it than I actually have. What arrived was Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, by the same author.

A fact I failed to notice… until I logged off the hour-long Skype call, having happily discussed the themes raised in the chapter with about half a dozen others.

I didn’t notice. And they didn’t notice.

The literary critic Edmund Wilson famously said,

No two persons ever read the same book.’

I’d like to think he’d once made the same mistake.

Since we had largely interacted with the themes more than with the chapters themselves, I had contributed quite freely to the discussion, and may even have made some worthwhile points along the way! We all seemed to be on the same page, despite being quite literally not.

I confess, I was a little baffled that I was the only one citing Foucault. And there was a Rorty quote that the others kept banging on about, which I couldn’t for the life of me find during the discussion… but I was familiar with the quote anyway, so I assumed I’d read it but was just struggling to locate it in the moment.

It was only when we concluded the call by saying that next time we would discuss the second chapter on Wittgenstein, and I discovered that my chapter 2 was about Jean-François Lyotard, that I realised something was off.

Which leaves me with the following observations and/or conundrums:

  1. I’m pretty good at blagging, even when I don’t know I’m doing it.
  2. The first chapters of J.K.A. Smith’s books may be relatively interchangeable!
  3. If I can make some interesting points when I’ve read the wrong book, just imagine how erudite I’ll be when I’ve read the right one!
  4. On the other hand, I could try pitting the respective chapter 2s against each other and see if I can survive another round…
  5. It’s a good thing I didn’t get a copy of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but since that’s one of my favourite plays, I probably would have noticed!
  6. You know that old adage about judging books by covers? Well it turns out you can, and you should!

Image: BB_VintageBookCover_03 by Jay Hilgert, used under CC-BY 2.0

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