There’s a famous quote from one of my favourite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, on reading. He posits that the two reasons for reading are for enjoyment and that you can boast about having read something.
Let’s face it, he was correct.
I’ve previously discussed the reading statistics that show we primarily read for enjoyment but also seem to feel obliged to read other books (particularly literary titles). Actually, I’ve discussed this issue a lot. The anecdata back this up, with early e-reader adopters being the romance and erotica fans who could now read on the bus to work. We just don’t like to be seen enjoying the books we enjoy.
So it should come as no surprise that people like to pretend they’ve read certain books. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.
A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.
The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.
1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%)
I have actually read 1984. Some people like to announce that 1984 is our current reality, which shows they haven’t read it or are fond of hyperbole. I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one. Worth a read if only to see how people seem to mash 1984 and Brave New World together.
2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)
I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. I have no intention of revisiting it. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.
3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)
I watched the old black and white film, does that count? No? Oh well, I don’t care.
4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)
I’ve read this novel many times and hated it every single time.
Why reread a novel you hate?
Well, reader surrogate, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those “classics”. You’re meant to love it, or feel moved, or something. Smart people like it, so I must, ipso facto, be a dummy for not enjoying the brilliance of this book. So every 5 or so years I feel the urge to see if I missed something the other times I read it.
I don’t think I missed anything.
Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.
5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)
I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.
6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)
Okay, okay, I’ll come clean. I only read this book after seeing the first movie in the theatre. In my defence, I tried reading the Hobbit when I was younger and then realised I had so much more to live for and stopped reading.
I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. The narrative structure in parts is also poorly done. In a modern book, those separate threads would be told concurrently rather than one thread at a time with big jumps backward for the next thread. Unlike some 1,000 page novels, this one is worth a look.
7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)
I don’t claim to have read this one, but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet either. I’ve even got two copies, a DTB and an ebook.
8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)
[Insert joke about book title being equivalent to reading said book]
9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)
I’m going to read the zombie version. I know, I know. Sacrilege.
10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)
I’m not really interested in reading this. My wife isn’t a fan, but my sister is. No offence to my sister, but I’m taking my wife’s recommendation not to bother.
Bonus: Infinite Jest.
I recently started reading Infinite Jest and gave up. I mean, a book weighing in at one thousand pages had better have a gripping/engaging first chapter to encourage me. Wallace was lauded for this novel, but I think it needed to get to the damned point.*
The point I’d like to make is that there is no reason to read any of these books. Sure, some of them are great. You might enjoy some or all of them. You might hate some or all of them. But you don’t need to pretend to have read them.
And it is worth noting that many literary influences transcend their medium. You don’t necessarily have to read a book to have a working knowledge of the plot or themes. I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek where one character criticises Picard for chasing his white whale. Picard acknowledges the point by quoting a relevant line from the book, a book that character hadn’t read. In that moment, despite Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the book, he needed someone else to point out the moral of the story.
Enjoy reading. Don’t feel as though you have to read.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out.