Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!

25 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on May 12, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    It may depend on the audience we’re lying to, I guess. If you were in a pub chatting to some non-readers then you may not admit to reading anything more than The Sun. I regularly come across people who say they’ve never read a book.

    I only half-read Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’. I’d probably lie about reading and understanding that dense book.


    • The problem with saying you’ve read something when you haven’t is that it’s all too easy to get caught out!
      When I am with people who aren’t readers, I generally don’t talk about books anyway. My non-reader friends accept me as a bit if an eccentric, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever pretended not to gave read a book, when I have!


  2. I haven’t done it, but now I think I might… lie about reading the latest hype title. Twice I have been caught out with exactly the situation you describe and both the books that were foisted on me were so loooong, I nearly went mad reading them and then for the sake of friendship had to lie about liking them. Better to lie about reading them in the first place, yeah!


  3. Posted by Carl McLuhan on May 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    Books I will never read again no longer have a home in my library. Such is The DaVinci Code and believe it or not, 100 Shades of Grey. The Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones I will never read unless I’ve run out of everything else. The earlier two I read when they first came out because I felt the need to know what they represented to our culture. Fortunately, they were quick reads.

    The weightier Russian tomes I have in my library and, should I live long enough, will get to them. Ever since The Dusty Shelf days, I have wanted to read War & Peace. It’s still waiting for me. So is Remembrance of Things Past, a little closer to the top of my must-read list. I have read Lord of the Rings, but admittedly, it’s not for everybody. I have a healthy tolerance for fantasy if it’s well written and the Tolkien is littered with characters steeped in semantic and etymological lore. A whole slough of philosophical books I have never touched, although they too, await me, perhaps in a more solitary state than I live in at the moment. Such is the Wittgenstein, but also the Husserl, the Locke, and others. How about Kierkegaard? His works, too, are there, their pages yellowing with each passing year.

    I say all this, with little regard for what my poor mind might be capable of, the older I get. I may arrive at the portal of another major culling of my collection, barely able to let even one of these precious treasures go. Of course, there is, at the end of it all, the concern about what to do with my library when the time really comes.


    • I don’t know what it is, but as soon as I approach the fantasy genre, my mind just switches off. I don’t dispute that there’s some good stuff there, but it’s really not for me, and with so much of such high quality that I do enjoy that I haven’t yet read, I don’t really feel the inclination to try yet again with a genre that I am very unlikely ever to enjoy.

      There are a great many books I don’t think I’ll ever read, because they’re likely to go over my head. I’ve read some books about philosophy, but I fear the primary texts are likely to be well beyond me.

      The Shades of Da Vinci Codes I don’t think I’ll ever read. Call it snobbery if you will, but as I say, with so much around of such high quality that I haven’t yet read; and, also, with so much that I need to reread, as I know I haven’t taken them in adequately, I really don’t know I have the time or the patience. I have no problems, of course, with others reading them or enjoying them. Each to their own!

      But in general, I’m with Caroline: I don’t really see the point of lying about what books one has read. It just seems rather silly.


  4. The problem I have is often not being able to remember whether I’ve read a book or not….. :s


    • I think I’m such a slow reader, and, consequently, have read so few books (especially compared to some other book bloggers, whose range and depth of reading seem to me often quite extraordinary), that I think I always remember whether or not I’ve read something. Remembering the contents is, of course, another matter!


  5. I don’t think I’ve ever lied about reading or not reading a book. It wouldn’t even occur to me.


    • The Lord of the Rings is the only one I think I have lied about, but, after these blog posts, I don’t think I could get away with that one again!

      But yes, lying about reading books in order to impress does seem a remarkably pointless thing to do.


      • I was thinking about this afterwards and realized I would be far more inclined to say I haven’t read something if I considered it to be in bad taste. Not that this happens very often, but you know. Lying about Lord of the Rings is possibly pointless but not shameful. I find it super shameful when someone pretends having read Tractatus Logico Philosophicus or Ulysses or the Illiad in the original text. At least, with the last one, you might not get caught.

      • Well, I do think that my claiming to have read Lord of the Rings has prevented well-meaning people from pressing a copy into my hands, telling me that I absolutely MUST read it! But yes, lying about reading merely to impress really is pretty foolish.

        There is another category of books that are worth considering: books I have read, but which I didn’t take in too well (if at all). I have actually read Proust, but I know that I took in so very little of it, that it’s possibly not worthwhile claiming that I’ve read it. Similarly with Musil: The Man Without Qualities went more or less over my head. Have I really *read* those books? No, I don’t think I have … not *really* read them …

  6. Posted by mudpuddle on May 13, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    i read LOTR several times in my youth; it’s boring now… i don’t lie about reading mainly because i don’t talk to people much… mostly they’re boring also… i do find that the great majority of modern fiction, especially but not exclusively, is poorly written and inaccurate… my reading is quite eclectic: just finished “Life: A User’s Manual” and rather liked it; hard to follow, tho… before that it was “Treasures of Tartary”: short stories by Robert E. Howard… some of his work, although meant as popular distraction, is well written…


    • “i don’t lie about reading mainly because i don’t talk to people much… mostly they’re boring also… ”

      I must admit, that did make me laugh quite immoderately!


    • Posted by Charley Brady on May 20, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      So glad you mentioned Robert E. Howard. I think that he was an outstanding writer. He never pretended to be anything but pulp, but he was able to capture a scene and really haunt one when he was at his best. And there were times when his writing reached such a pitch that he almost sounded demented, so into it he got.

      I’ll also leave myself open to laughter by saying that I believe the collections of letters between himself and Lovecraft are simply superb. These guys rubbed off each other to a ferocious extent and the work of both writers was hugely improved by their contact with each other.

      Despite my love of the fantasy field I too never got beyond the first volume of ‘Lord of the Rings’. The whole thing just seemed so bloody twee or something. I never for one moment believed that the characters were in any sense ‘real’.

      My loss, no doubt. And it probably says more about the state of MY mind than Tolkien’s but I could never picture his hobbits going to the loo or having sex. Nothing except eating, really.

      I recently finished Alan Moore’s massive work ‘Jerusalem’ after a few false starts. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve read his earlier ‘Voice of the Fire’….but if you liked that one then you will adore ‘Jerusalem’ —- just don’t expect a page-turner….


  7. If I ever brag about reading a Stephen King novel you can be sure that I am lying. But I look at your first list of titles people lie about having read and am saddened that the mendacious non-readers have missed out on the joys of reading the books in question.

    Yet despite my dismay at the lowering of literary standards, sometimes you just have to read Dan Brown: how else will you learn to differentiate good reading from crap?

    Here in the USA there is a faction that rejects serious reading of any kind and even attacks those who read as being elitist. Unfortunately, this rejection of basic reading and thinking skills has now reached the highest levels in the government. Not admitting to having read a book is rapidly becoming a survival skill.


    • With Dan Brown books, I think you can get a reasonable flavour of them by just opening a copy in a bookshop and reading a few paragraphs at random.

      Here, on the other side of the Pond, there are also many who reject serious reading, and regard those who read serious literature as “elitist”.

      I think that the titles people lie about having read give some indication of what people think is worth striving for. When someone lies about having read War and Peace, say, they obviously think that it is a lie worth telling; and that, by implication, War and Peace is a book worth reading. It is those who lie about having read The Da Vinci Code who really puzzle me.


      • If memory serves, there was an I Love Lucy episode back in the 1950’s where the humorous trope was Lucy lying about having read War and Peace to her book club and then learning that no one else had actually read it either.

        I can understand lying about reading The Da Vinci Code: Isn’t it common wisdom that everyone has read it? Would you want to admit to not having read what everyone else has read?

  8. I read somewhere recently that Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is the most important book that no one reads. But I understand that the most well-known book that never gets read, despite being the king of the best sellers, is the Bible.

    It strikes me as amusing to think that most people lie about reading the Bible, considering …

    I studied the Bible at university, have at least six versions on my bookshelves, and have read even the most boring books of the Bible several times over. I also read The Lord of the Rings about the same time. Neither was that great but I found Frodo’s adventures to be more believable.


    • I am not sure that one needs, necessarily, to read primary texts when it comes to the sciences. One can easily grasp the subject from good secondary texts. I think, for instance, that I have a pretty good grasp of Newtonian mechanics (I graduated in physics), but I have never read Newton’s Principia. Similarly, I think, with Copernican theory: one can get a perfectly good understanding from secondary texts.

      As for the Bible, I’ve read the whole of the New Testament in the KJV version, and a number of the Old Testament books (though certainly not all of them). But, with a few exceptions (e.g. the Book of Job) the books of the Bible aren’t books I keep returning to, so I don’t really have any great depth of knowledge or understanding. I suppose I should, really, given the central position occupied by these books in Western culture.


      • When I was studying literature there was an emphasis on knowing what the author of the primary text knew. Thus I needed a strong and widely-varied background in religions, mythologies, local politics, languages, dietary restrictions, sciences, and sacred animals. Of course my own erudition was significantly humbled when I read James Joyce and I haven’t been the same since.

  9. Posted by alan on May 17, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Don’t worry, one day people will lie about having read your blog.
    When they are subsequently exposed they will defend their ignorance of the early 2000’s with: “If you can remember the Old Git then you weren’t there”.


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