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.

quote-there-are-two-motives-for-reading-a-book-one-that-you-enjoy-it-the-other-that-you-can-boast-bertrand-russell-263575

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.*

tldr

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.

* I’m not the only one who thought this:

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.

7 thoughts on “The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

    1. There’s always a “you have to read” book. Most of the books I’ve read from the “have to read” lists were pretty dull and made me hate reading.

      Not that I’m saying Pride and Prejudice is dull.

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  1. The irony is that Crime and Punishment is widely considered entertaining (especially the murder scenes) and has always had a popular success. It has had a huge influence on many writers, and great figures such as Einstein have praised it. However, some of the other options on your list don’t do anything for me personally.

    I love comic books, Japanese anime, and sci-fi (I also write science fiction short stories), but I believe it isn’t nice or rational to accuse those people who claim to have read difficult books of being liars. Stephen King himself recommended War and Peace in his text On Writing. It is true that the book begins slowly with its high society scenes (Tolstoy disapproved of high society), but the latter parts of the book, including the war scenes, the burning of Moscow, and the scenes with Napoleon, the fears that the characters face, were some the greatest and most entertaining things I have ever read. There is a reason it has been widely esteemed and it has had a huge public audience.

    But it is true that aesthetic ideals are based upon the ideological and cultural values of a time period; hence, no artistic tradition can claim an objectivity in its aesthetic criteria. I agree with that. Aesthetic ideals are subjective, but what is entertainment is also subjective; I thought Orwell was boring, but I found Melville entertaining (I have degree in biology, so I can enjoy the technical whale descriptions because I love animals). What you enjoy depends upon your interests. But we must not narrow our interests to only one artistic tradition, whether it is science fiction, crime, or literary fiction. Nor should we narrow our reading range only to what is considered entertaining, for pleasure depends upon the tropes and formulas we have become accustomed to because we were brought up within a commercial culture where many cultural artefacts obey similar stylistic designs to satisfy the commercial desire for profitability.

    While the commodities of the capitalist popular culture industry can be considered entertaining, a populist concept that entertainment is the only thing that matters is an idea that we must avoid because it marginalises many other literary traditions that do not have the structural or stylistic aspects that the commodities of the popular culture industry mostly obey. The poetry of many African American poets such as Robert Haydn and Jay Wright is extremely difficult, but sometimes difficulty can be invigorating, like computer programming or calculus. Certain forms of literature I have studied in other languages have challenged me with their difficulty because the writer was trying to express something in a way that is different to all other forms of writing.

    We can enjoy science fiction and there are some great writers in that genre, but we should not reject difficult and past aristocratic literary traditions, especially ones such as Sanskrit literature, Roman literature, Ancient Chinese poetry, Victorian novels, Medieval Italian literature, as well as hundreds of other difficult literary traditions from other cultures, because of populist anti-intellectualism which holds that the products of corporate popular culture are the only things that matter. This privileges the corporate hegemony of the popular culture industries in the West, as well as its commercial ideals of judging books according to sales. This means that anything that does not satisfy our lust within the first one hundred pages should not be taught or read. I believe this is a wrong way to make the case for popular culture.

    Although there is great science fiction, difficult and intellectual fiction that disobeys the dictates of commercial criteria should still be given a chance and may reward you after a few readings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with your overall thesis, but I’d also argue that while challenging ourselves can be good, it shouldn’t be “mandatory”.

      Take for example the African American poets: reading them will likely be outside of many (white) people’s comfort zone. It would be great for readers to be challenged in this way. They’d probably not only learn something, but have a much greater appreciation of a more diverse literary and social landscape.

      But if you tell people they have to read those poets, like in high school, you can end up turning people off of that diversity and lend power to the uninformed rantings of the reactionary right. One of my worthy articles talks about this after an argument with someone over more diverse authors on the curriculum was raised. https://tysonadams.com/2019/11/22/school-literature/

      Thanks for the well thought out comment!!

      Like

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