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.

22 responses to this post.

  1. It’s interesting that two of the five books are Russian, not English. This is clear discrimination against Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. Perhaps War and Peace is on the list because of its reputation for being a very long book and many people avoid it for that reason. I’m with you on Tolkien. I tried the Hobbit but found it boring.


    • Oh – five books are never going to be enough! I suppose the French could equally speak of an anti-French discrimination: no Balzac, Stendhal, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, Proust, Camus, etc. One can’t really quarrel with Dickens, Tolstoy & Dostoyevsly.


  2. Posted by Alan on September 6, 2013 at 11:12 am

    I’ve never read “Lord of the Rings”, but I have no qualms about admitting this, nor refusing flatly even to try. It seems like one of those books that if you’re going to read it, you ought to do so by the age of 15. D H Lawrence I suspect is an another author best read before world weariness sets in too deeply.

    As for books that I really ought to have read by now, then “War and Peace” and “1984” would be on my list. Orwell I have a bit of a blind spot about; it might be that “Animal Farm” was a set text at school, which in my experience means both the book and the author are forever tainted thereafter (it may be why I’ve hardly returned to William Golding either).

    “War and Peace” I’ve no inbuilt prejudices against, having admired “Anna Karenina”, but somehow the sheer bulk of it gazes reproachfully at me from my bookshelf, and my hand wanders inevitably to a thinner tome elsewhere. Perhaps, as the winged chariot draws ever nearer, it becomes harder to contemplate the investment of so much time to just one book, when there are so many others still unread.


    • I suspect there’s actually much to Lawrence, but the problem s, I think, hs concerns aren’t really mine, and I find it extremely difficult to follow him, either emotionally or intellectually, to the often strange regions into which he insists we go. On top of everything, he was maddeningly inconsistent, but the very fact that he is now out of fashion makes me think that he very likely was a writer of considerable substance, and, indeed, of vision. But one can’t ake in everything.

      As anyone who as looked around this blog a bit will have a there’d, Tolstoy is virtually an obsession of mine. War and Peace is in 17 parts, each the length of a novella; so if you approach it as 17 short novels, it’s no problem at all. (I led a group read of this on another board a few years ago, and everyone was surprised by how quickly it moved. I wrote synopses of it, part by part: I’ve stuck them all up on this blog.)


  3. It is possible – nay, likely – that the 62% are answering the question “Have you ever lied about reading a book?” with the “ever” meaning “while in school.” So 57% lied to a teacher about having read the assigned book, e.g. Orwell.

    So this result may be less bizarre than it first seems. That is what I am saying.

    If I were to lie about a book, it would be to claim that I have not read Ayn Rand. In fact I have read three of her books.


    • Oh – lying about reading set books in school surely doesn’t count! It’d be a hell of a lot more than 60% were that to be the case!

      But really, there’s no need to lie about such matters: reading books is easy! Taking them in is, admittedly, a bit more difficult…


  4. While I am questioning the results: “conducted to coincide with the DVD release of The Big Bang Theory”? ??? ??? (???) Out on a limb – maybe this survey was not conducted using standard methodologies; maybe the results should be interpreted accordingly.


    • Well, no report of surveys goes into details on how the same was constructed, how it was analysed, etc. as a statistician myself, of sorts, I do find that a bit frustrating, and tend not to take the findings too seriously.


  5. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    Interesting conundrum: if being literate is scoffed at as being elite and out of touch with “real” people, then why do the “real” people lie about the extent of their reading?


  6. I once lied about reading a book – James Agee’s A Death in the Family – in order to impress someone who loved that book and on whom I had a tremendous crush. I was terrified that she’d find out that I hadn’t actually read it, so I bought the book, rushed home, and read it.


    • Trying to impress someone you have a crush on seems an excellent reason! I can’t think of a better! And that you actually went on to make true your boast is very impressive … It’s more than I think I might have done! 🙂


  7. I found this post to be very entertaining.

    I chuckled about the Ayn Rand reference. I can see that how at least in the USA some might just say that they had read her as there is a small but assertive army of Rand advocates who attempt to persuade all who will listen that they must read her in order to experience a life changing epiphany. I think that folks do claim to have read her either for credibility or just to placate her fans.


    • Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I didn’t mean to have a go at American literature, which I admire greatly. But no, i have no intention of reading Ayn Rand. Why not? Because I am a free individual exercising my free choice, and I choose not to – that’s why not. I trust Rand fans are OK with that! 🙂


      • Ann Rand’s books are not American literature.

      • Well, she certainly was American, and, looking around the internet, I do frequently see her works listed as literary classics. This is absurd in my view, and, I’d guess, in yours also. But I’d better be careful here, as her admirers are often, as far as I have observed, a combative lot, and I really do not want to get into a heated argument with anyone on this matter…

        Please don’t get me wrong – the last thing I’d want to do is to have a go at American literature, which is wonderfully rich and varied. I don’t think American literature lacks admirers here in Europe – or, indeed, in the rest of the world. My Ayn Rand comment was just a throwaway comment: I’m never above a cheap laugh! 🙂

      • Well, I read 100 pages, er..80?..ah, well, maybe it was only 50 pages of The Fountainhead. No lie!

      • You’re a braver man than I! I think I’ve read about 5 or so pages while browsing in a bookshop – and that was more than enough for me!

  8. Great post, as always. I do have a soft spot for fantasy literature, and I have read The Lord of the Rings, but (and this can ostracise me in many conversations) I have no real love for it. I’m with Michael Moorcock who considered it ‘Epic Pooh’, a sort of Merrie England that never really existed and must be protected, and, although I love some of the writers Tolkien has inspired, I resent the fact that, along with Harry Potter, LOTR is the only real fantasy literature that gets much widespread attention. I found it a tedious read, to be honest. But as I say, I usually keep quiet about it because it’s not a very popular view! So I’m in a similar boat to you: whenever LOTR comes up in conversation I try to move the topic along as quickly and painlessly as possible…


    • I’m notsure why I never enjoyed fantasy literature. After all, I’m happy to read Gulliver’s Travels, The Master and Margarita, The Trial … all of which are, to some degree, fantastical. But somewhere along the spectrum between naturalism and total fantasy, a curtain seems to descend: I really am not sure why!

      Of course, I have no problem with anyone loving The Lord of the Rings – why should I? – but it’s that proselytising glint that so often appears in the eye of the aficionado that scares me a bit… 😉


  9. I find myself thinking of the equivalent attitudes to theatre. So often when my husband and I say that we go to theatre, the response is some sort of apology for not going. Many people even say they “must” go more often. Why? If you want to go, go, If not, not. The same applies to reading in my view, but I can understand that there are many and varied reasons for being economical with the truth. (kudos to Scott W!)
    I also wonder if the vast number of TV and film adaptations littering our schedules nowadays aren’t partly to blame for the high number of respondents who claim to have read a book; they may actually think they have read it, when all they’ve done is see the three- or six-part mini-series. I must admit to enjoying stage adaptations partly because, if I didn’t enjoy the play, I won’t have to bother reading the book. I know that’s a superficial judgement, but there’s only so much time, and so much we could fill it with.
    Incidentally, I not only read LOTR but also enjoyed it, though it’s fine if others didn’t (read or enjoy, that is). I think it’s more appropriate to compare the books with the Mabinogion or Orkneyinga saga, and frankly, it’s a much easier read than either of those (having dipped my toe in the saga water, so to speak).


    • Hello Sheila,

      …there’s only so much time, and so much we could fill it with

      That is the problem, isn’t it? Not enough time! And so, we fill whatever spare time we have with that which is most important to us. And that which is of secondary importance is relegated. I, for instance, have stopped going to the cinema: this is partly because the films most easily accessible in the mainstream are not really attractive to me; however, I could easily make the effort to catch up on worthwhile films on DVD, or go to independent cinemas in Central London. I don’t do so because I prefer spending whatever spare time I have with my books. Others, quite legitimately, have different priorities. But it does mean that there are certain activities which may not be the top of our personal priorities, but which we can nonetheless recognise as important, and, hence, feel guilty (if “guilty” is not too strong a word to use in this context) for not pursuing. This cannot be helped, of course: we never have enough time to do all that we may think worth doing!

      And it’s not merely spending time on different things equally worthwhile. We live in an age of distractions. That is one way of saying I am easily distracted. I complain about not having enough time to read, and yet I waste God knows how long messing around on my i-Pad! So, for whatever reason, we end up detached from manythings we feel we shouldn’t be detached from.

      Lying about it is obviously silly- but obviously, people do. And this is curious, for, in my experience at least, literary erudition is not very widely valued. And yet, people seemingly lie about it in order to impress. There seems to me a strange doublethink going on here!

      Adaptations of works from one medium into another is something that fascinates me. At best, these adaptations can be wonderful works in their iwn right – sometimes eclipsing the material on which they are based. But I can’t help feeling that it is dangerous to judge any work from an adaptation. But as you say, there’s so little time…

      (And I apologise for my snide remarks about Tolkien: I really don’t know why I am so resistant to fantasy literature – but there it is! I was going for a cheaplaugh with my Tolkien comments: I am never above going for a cheap laugh!)

      All the best, Himadri


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