Classic Books · The Reading Life

Why are people lying about the books they’ve read?

Years ago at a party, one of my cousins introduced me to a schoolmate of his with the description, “She’s studying English Literature.”

“Really?” the friend asked (slyly, I thought). “Have you heard of the book Gobbledy Gook“?

I told him (haughtily, I hoped) that no, in fact, I’d never heard of Gobbledy Gook. That’s when he laid some truth on me: the book didn’t exist. He’d made up the title, apparently to test whether I was legit. At the time, I thought it was kind of a douche move, but maybe he had a point.

Lying about books is apparently a thing. Stories and polls have been hanging around since  2009, 2013, 2014. Then there’s Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, in which he sets out to read fifty books he’d previously lied about reading. (Despite the bizarre, to my thinking, premise, I found it an utterly charming memoir and his enthusiasm about books infectious.) More recently, an open thread at The Guardian asked readers to ‘fess up to the books they’ve lied about reading. This on the heels of a survey that revealed most people “pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent.”

This strikes me as counterproductive. Wouldn’t being exposed as a liar call one’s intelligence into question more than simply acknowledging that one hasn’t read all the great books ever written? Besides, just because I’ve read a great book doesn’t mean I remember anything about it.

I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss in graduate school. I can describe both book covers and vividly recall filling the interiors with endless marginalia. But I couldn’t tell you a blessed thing about what either of the books is about. Forget about the plot; I don’t even remember the names of the main characters. Ditto Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I wouldn’t be lying, strictly speaking, if I said I read them. But does it even count if I can’t remember them?

Well, sure. Maybe not to my intelligence (who knows, really?). But they meant something to me at the time that I read them, even if it was for school (ha). I remember loving Middlemarch while I was reading it, especially as compared to reading Moby-Dick. (I was assigned Moby-Dick as well and, after 50 pages, opted to read the Cliffs Notes instead. There. I said it. At 132 pages, they were shorter than the novel itself, but not short in absolute terms.)

Look, it’s not like one lifetime is long enough to read every great book ever written. And anyway, one doesn’t need to read all the books, classic or otherwise, to be an intelligent, thoughtful, and productive member of society. At least that’s what I tell myself…

Classic novels
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray…

3 thoughts on “Why are people lying about the books they’ve read?

  1. I don’t lie about what I’ve read, but I do have the problem of not remembering much of anything about many (maybe most) of the books I’ve read. Even some of my “favorite” books – The Magus, The World According to Garp – I loved those books yet I can’t give you much more than a rather disjointed sentence or two regarding what they are about.

    1. Oh, that’s very familiar to me. I bought a book recently and was into the second chapter before I realized I had read it when it first came out!

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