Sorry I didn’t read your book

Image: James Montgomery Flagg. Public domain.

I didn’t read your article. I never read civilian literature.

On “Fresh Air,” Terry Gross was talking to the co-writers and co-directors of Coco, Adrian Molina and Lee Unkrich. Setting up a question about how to make a “child-friendly” movie about death, she began, “Now, this is a family film. Adults are supposed to bring children to this film, though you don’t need children to enjoy the film as an adult….”

Unkrich jumped on it. “I’m glad you said… you don’t have to have kids with you to go see the movie, because I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘oh, I haven’t seen your film yet because I haven’t been able to find kids to take with me.’ …That’s like my biggest pet peeve is that people somehow think that we’re making kids’ movies and that they’re embarrassed to go see the movies [without] kids. I just want to pull my hair out.”

Yes. And that is why so many filmmakers/writers/journalists have those sporty bald patches.

Say you meet someone who has a new movie/book/performance piece. You haven’t seen it or read it, and you feel bad about that. Maybe you meant to.

Do not apologize. “Sorry I didn’t read your book” contains the words “I didn’t read your book.” Which is fine, actually, but WHY SAY THAT.

What you should say is “Congratulations on your book!” Or “Your movie is out! That’s fantastic!” “It’s so great they’re showing your ceramics at the museum!”


Acknowledge their work. Congratulate them! But even if you feel guilty, don’t make it about you. And ESPECIALLY, don’t blame their genre. Do not imply that theirs is a worthless genre that you would only indulge in as a favor to them. That turns a needless apology into a poisoned apology.

DO NOT SAY “I don’t go to movies for kids!” “I don’t read romance.” “I’m not interested in cats.” “I don’t listen to anything that leaves me depressed.” “I don’t read anything in translation.”

Image: James Sant. “The Novice.” Public domain.

I don’t read secular books.

If you don’t, that is fine. It really is. But SHUT UP ABOUT IT when you’re talking to someone who MAKES THAT THING.

Do not openly despise the person’s entire field. Jonelle Patrick, author of the excellent Only in Tokyo mysteries, and SorryWatch Japan correspondent, has described this well.

“Why must people bend my ear AT LENGTH to explain that they haven’t read my book because they ‘don’t read ebooks’? I can’t tell you how many times I have had to suffer through a lengthy spiel that sounds both defensive and self-righteous at the same time…

“I never ask people if they’ve read my books or liked them, NEVER, but some people evidently feel guilty for not having read them, so I get spontaneously treated to a SorryWatch failure of an excuse mixed with ‘I like the feel of REAL BOOKS in my hands.’ Do people not realize this is about ten times more hurtful than saying nothing?

“…Sheesh, I write genre fiction. I totally know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and even if it is, maybe they aren’t interested in the particular kind I write. Fair enough. No problem. Don’t read it. But don’t rub it in!” (Patrick’s books are now available as “real books” as well as e-books. And if you “don’t read mysteries,” fool, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.)

Katherine Catmull is the author of the justly praised Summer and Bird and Radiant Road, which are classified as YA (Young Adult) and as Fantasy. (She’s also an actor and playwright.) She says, “I have… gotten ‘I don’t read fantasy, so.’ Which is more info than I need, thanks.”

Photo: Rhododendrites. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

I don’t read fire-safety books.

The TOTALLY UNNECESSARY apologies she gets “tend to run along the lines of people in the midst of some normal conversation bursting out defensively with ‘I haven’t read your book yet! But you know my Mom’s been sick, and with the kids just starting school!’ followed by me saying ‘but no no no no don’t worry, you don’t have to read it!’ followed by them saying ‘But I really want to but I’m so busy!’ GAH WHY ARE WE HAVING THIS DUMB AWKWARD CONVERSATION.

“(I know why, it’s because people want to be kind to me and put a big burden on themselves about it, and the conversation they’ve been bitterly having with me in their head is now happening out loud, so it’s all niceness all the way down, but ergh.)”

Mary Mackey, novelist and poet, has heard “You write novels? I never read novels. They’re fiction and fiction is just a bunch of lies.”

Bizarre, right? Pamela McCorduck gets that too: “I never read fiction.” To which she responds (possibly silently), “I don’t do heroin.” She was also not thrilled when someone at a cocktail party blathered, “I collect books for hospice, and I saw yours was being donated so I put it aside for myself to read.”

People sometimes tell Sumac that, sorry, they didn’t read her book because they can’t stand to read about animal suffering.

When Snarly worked at Sassy, some people would tell her, “I hear it’s great but of course I would never look at a teen magazine.” She got that a lot. “So dismissive!”

So here’s the deal: Do not apologize for not having read/watched/visited someone’s work. DO NOT. (Unless you are their agent and reading their book is your job.)

DO acknowledge their accomplishment.

“Did I hear you published a book/finished that movie/found an exhibit space? That’s awesome!”

You can even say, “I’m looking forward to your book/movie/interactive zebra space,” but that’s OPTIONAL.

(Naturally, it would be fine if you said, “I’m crazy about your book/movie/performance and it’s so genius I told my friend Oprah/Dave Remnick/Steve Spielberg/the folks at Sundance about it and now they’re all excited too,” but only if it’s true.)

A few other things not to say:

“I found your book in a dumpster!”

“You’re a therapist? Oh, I would never go to therapy.”

“What do you teach? Underwater basket-weaving?”

Photo: Salcedo95. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The alebrijes in Coco are wonderful.

“You’re a lawyer? You know the difference between a dead lawyer in the road and a dead snake in the road? There are skid marks in front of the snake!” (Always said by a person who does not know what kind of law the person they’re talking to practices. Often followed by the suggestion that the lawyer should buy the drinks/buy dinner/tell the person if they can sue their contractor.)

Oh yeah, Sumac went to see Coco. Without a child escort. She loved it and says it’s gorgeous. (The alebrijes!) But if she hadn’t, she’d tell Unkrich & Molina, “Congratulations on your movie! That is SO COOL!”

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8 Responses to Sorry I didn’t read your book

  1. Arturo Magidin says:

    You forgot one thing not to say.
    “What do you do?”
    “I’m a mathematician.”
    “Oh, I hated math in school/I was never any good at math.”

    I get that a lot…

  2. tanita says:

    Ah, this is WAY too close to home. “But, I don’t read YA fiction — when are you going to write something for adults?” is An Actual Thing That People Say.

    *cue sounds of axes*

  3. That photo with the caption “I don’t read secular book” — one of your greatest works.

  4. Patrick Di Justo says:

    Slightly off topic, but not really. I used to run a planetarium in a town north of New York City. When I told people what I did, their first reaction was “We have a planetarium? Really?” but their second and more annoying comment was:

    “Oh yeah. I’ll bring the kids.”

  5. tom says:

    Oh, man, I woulda read your column, but I don’t do Alebrijes.

  6. In return, perhaps authors could refrain from saying to their friends, “If you’d ever read a word I’ve written you would know…”


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