Archive for September 6th, 2013

Lying about books

Maybe I’ve just been mixing in the wrong circles. For I don’t think I have encountered any social circle in which literary erudition is particularly valued. Not that it is looked down upon, as such – that sort of thing, in my experience, only happens in certain areas of the internet where people are keen to establish their anti-snobbery credentials – but it is not much valued either. And that frankly suits me fine, because then, no-one sees the point of lying about books they (he? she? he or she? one?) haven’t read. Not only is no-one impressed by such bragging, but, even if the brag happens to be true, advertising one’s accomplishments is seen, quite correctly, to be in bad taste. Of course, if someone can speak in an intelligent and interesting manner about their reading, that is different; but merely to mention one has read something, whether one has or not, is but pointless braggadocio.

So I am a bit surprised that, according to this report in the Telegraph, over 60% of Britons admit to reading works they haven’t. What is the point? I wonder. But leaving the lying aside, I find myself intrigued by the five titles that have been chosen to represent the classics – Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings. Had this list been American rather than British, one might have expected Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird to have found a place there (or even, heaven help us, something by Ayn Rand), but overall, the titles in this very short list are all among the usual suspects. And they are all novels, of course, since poetry, short stories, drama, essays, etc. tend not to loom very prominently in the general perception of what constitutes literature.

Why Crime and Punishment, I wonder, and not, say The Idiot, or Demons, or The Brothers Karamazov? Why Pride and Prejudice (which admittedly isn’t in this particular list, but could so easily have been) rather than, say, Emma, or Mansfield Park, or Persuasion? I suppose that in each of these cases, the favoured title is the most accessible of the writer’s work (by which I mean the easiest to read and to take in), and is therefore most likely to have been read. That’s fair enough, I suppose. But even in this very shortlist of only five, the presence of Nineteen Eighty Four intrigues me. That it is a fine work, and very widely read, and hugely influential in shaping the modern imagination, there can be no doubt; and perhaps these qualities alone justify its inclusion. But Orwell himself, I imagine, might have felt a trifle embarrassed to have his work ranked alongside the novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

And there’s one more title I haven’t mentioned: The Lord of the Rings – the book that tops just about every single public poll ever held on favourite books. I had better not comment on this title, since it is obviously very widely read and very deeply loved, and since, further, my personal tastes are such that the attractions of the fantasy genre elude me completely. But I will admit that this is one book I lie about having read. Not to brag about it, you understand, but because, in this instance, lying saves a lot of time and hassle. It saves my having to hear, repeatedly, that I absolutely must read this, that I owe it to myself to read it, that it is among the greatest of masterpieces, and so on. And it saves my nodding away politely, saying that yes, I really must get round to it some day, and dreading that someone will press a copy of it into my hands and ask me later what I made of it. Better just to say that yes, I have read it, but that it isn’t really my kind of thing; and then we can all move on painlessly to some other topic.

Actually, I have read the first of the three volumes, and didn’t feel in the least inclined to read the others. No, that’s a lie as well. I started the first of the volumes, trudged through about half of it, and decided that life, even at the age of nineteen or so, simply wasn’t long enough.

Or maybe that’s a lie as well: I honestly can’t remember. When one lies so frequently about something, it becomes a habit one can’t shake off, and one can’t remember what really is true and what isn’t. Heaven only knows what the truth of this matter is.