Pretend Reading

by wjw on July 24, 2013

Bookriot has published a list, complete with a handy Venn diagram, of books people lie about having read, along with books they wish they’ve read.

(Both they, and I, were a little surprised that Pride & Prejudice topped both lists.  It’s not as if comprehending the adventures of Miss Elizabeth Bennett require knowledge of post-structuralist theory, now does it?  I mean, you want to read it, just read it, it’s not that hard, honestly.)

And people pretend to read 50 Shades of Grey.  If I’d read it, I’d pretend I hadn’t.

But what interested me is that people pretend to have read books.  I mean, why?  It’s not like you get shunned if you haven’t read Moby-Dick.  Even in grad school, I’d imagine.

I don’t think I’ve ever pretended to have read something I haven’t— even if I had the inclination, the fact is that I run with a literate crowd, and I’d be found out.  It’s barely possible that I might have claimed to have finished something I hadn’t, but I doubt even that.

I suppose that for English class, people might claim to have read a book when they’d only done the Cliff Notes. But outside of that?

So I’m curious.  If you’ve pretended to have read a book, and it wasn’t a reading assignment in class, why did you do it?

As far as the list goes, I’ve done pretty well at actually reading books that other people only claim to have read.  I haven’t read Fifty Shades, The Catcher In the Rye, Gone With the Wind, and 100 Years of Solitude.   I have started (but failed to finish) Crime and Punishment, Infinite Jest, Anna Karenina (liked War & Peace, though), In Search of Lost Time (couldn’t get past Chapter One), and the Bible. (Has anyone noticed that the people in the Bible are crazy???  There’s only so much time I can spend around deranged people.)

How about y’all?  And what tops your list of books you want to read but haven’t?


JD Bell July 24, 2013 at 2:59 am

Well I haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake, though I have been trying to since 1975. I get thirty pages in and give up and go buy a case of beer. That is the only novel I would like to read and failed at.

The rest of the list? I have not read, nor attempted to read, any of the Russian classics. I read Catcher in the Rye once, when I was 18. Catch 22 twice, once when I did not get the joke and once when I did. (Ten years and puberty separating the two readings.) Lord of the Rings I have read, along with Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, the Bible (King James edition-love the cadences and the vocabulary), Gatsby and Moby Dick. Moby Dick was late high school and an assigned read, Gatsby was in the freshman year of college.

Some other suggestions for ‘pretend’ to have read: Canterbury Tales (in middle English), the Sot-Weed Factor, The Faerie Queene, A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker.


Karen Lofstrom July 24, 2013 at 9:07 am

I don’t think that I’ve ever pretended to read something that I haven’t. However, I do have a house full of books that I intended to read at one time. UNIX and Linux manuals. Islamic history. The largest, most accusing volume is Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander. Over 1000 pages re the first Persian empire.

I have sorta kinda read Fifty Shades of Grey. I skimmed the whole trilogy in one afternoon. The only thing that kept me going was one question: was he EVER going to … ah … have anal intercourse with the heroine? Nope, never did. Sheesh, what a disappointment as a transgressive book. It’s the kindergarten version of transgressive.

Oz July 24, 2013 at 11:55 am

I’ve never pretended to read something I haven’t, except a couple of times in college when the reading for seminar was truly excruciating. St John’s was all about reading, but you had to read faster than I usually can.

I have read scads of the Bible for college seminar. I highly recommend 100 Years of Solitude, or did when I was 21. I read Gone With the Wind at 13 and loved every minute of it, but I think it’s a chick book in some ways. She’s as delightful a protagonist as Emma is. The rest of the “Meaning to Read” list is not on my meaning to read list. The spouse read and praised Gravity’s Rainbow. Something to do with physics. Pynchon is not my cup of tea.

People do seem to pretend to have read Lord of the Rings, though I don’t understand why. I’ve never attempted War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses Crime and Punishment, Infinite Jest or Catch-22. But all the great Brit gothic romances? Yeah. Dickens stumped me, though I had to read Copperfield in 8th grade English. And Steinbeck for the Americans, I was exposed to his shorter novels too young, where bad things happen to good people.


rushmc July 24, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I’ve read or have on my to-read list most of the books on these lists. It would be dishonorable to claim I’d read any I hadn’t read. There are millions of books–you can’t read them all.

I HIGHLY recommend that you move One Hundred Years of Solitude from your “not read” to your “read” list! No one, and in particular no writer, should miss out on this one.

Aghori Shaivite July 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I read The Brothers Karamazov and loved it. One of my favorite books. But I’ve had Crime and Punishment for the longest, but never read it. Never read Tolstoy. I really want to read a lot of Russian authors from the late 19th century. A guy recommended a bunch to me but it’ll take a while for me to get started…

Ralf The Dog. July 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm

That list above. I will admit, I have tried, however, the compression artifacts kept me from doing so.

Never finished the Republic. I did read enough of it to recognize it in the new Superman movie. When I was in kindergarten, I pretended to read, Fun with Dick and Jane, when my teacher took away my copy of Economics and the Theory of Games. (I hated that teacher.)

There are a few books I sudo read. You pick the book up, you eyes track the words, but they don’t stick in your brain. Big chunks of the Dune series fit into that category.

wjw July 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm

I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow multiple times, and I’ve found that you have to make a big lunge through about the first 100 pages or so, after which the story actually starts and you can enjoy it. Pynchon didn’t know who his protagonist was going to be when he started, and he eventually settled on someone other than the character in the first 100 pages.

This is actually fairly common in Pynchon’s longer works. Almost all of them start out with someone who turns out not to be the protagonist.

TRX July 24, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I’ve never pretended to have read a book. I’d heard of people who read reviews in order to do so. I wasn’t entirely sure it was a joke.

In 45 years of reading, there are maybe six books I didn’t finish. That’s not counting “Mein Kampf”, which I failed to finish twice. In self-defense, of the NSDAP elite, only Herman Goebbels claimed to have read it all the way through… I managed to make it through the politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when it starts to channel “They Live!” I lose interest.

Gary Gibson July 25, 2013 at 10:04 am

People say these things because they think it makes them look smart. Unfortunately, the corollary to this is that many people also think you need to be smart to read them, so they don’t read them, because they think it’ll be hard work.

Actually, some of them are hard work. I’ve not so much read as attempted to read a number of these books, only to give up. I used to wonder if this meant I was not so smart after all, but as I grow older I grow more contrary and wonder exactly who decided these were the books we had to revere above all.

Erich Schneider July 25, 2013 at 1:35 pm

In college, 25 years ago, I signed up for a class on James Joyce, which I dropped a few weeks in, but kept all the texts (Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist…, Stephen Hero, Ulysses plus a volume of annotations). My first year of grad school during Christmas break I started on Ulysses, but stopped halfway through. I’ve been meaning to get back to it ever since. (More so since I managed to read through the Odyssey in the original Greek, about 7 years ago.)

barry t July 25, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Well…. I’ve read some of them. Some I started and didn’t finish (Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, War and Peace – all Russian novels should be sold with a bookmark listing all the characters and their relationships to each other. Without one, the whole thing is a frost.)

To make up for my backsliding, I am (and have been for some years) working my way through Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ – the Womersley edition, the first complete ed. since the original. Three hefty octavo vols of compact print totaling 3,400+ pages and with all of Gibbon’s footnotes included.
It keeps me out of mischief.

wjw July 25, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Gibbon’s footnotes are the best part!

Ken Houghton July 27, 2013 at 4:38 pm

I’ve been trying to read P&P for a year now, and keep getting bored because I have no reason to care about the characters. (Then again, I like Lost in Austen a lot.)

Then again, I gave up on LotR several times, and never plan to try again. I can find better World War I novels, or go back to Gravity’s Rainbow.

Miriam March 31, 2014 at 11:00 pm

@TRX: Hermann Goering or Josef Goebbels? Maybe they both read “Mein Kampf” through.

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