Bookish Diversions: Pretending to Read
Lying About our Ignorance, Rereading Children’s Books as Adults, the Perils of Proper Citation, More
¶ Pretending to read. There are so many books: a deluge of titles deluged by still more, mounting like the waves of a tsunami, always growing and never cresting.
“In any given year, hundreds of publishers in the United States release around 60,000 books,” according to the New York Times. We know from YouGov polling that only 12 percent of U.S. adults read more than 20 books a year. Pause on that number: 20 out of 60,000; that’s just 0.03 percent for comparatively serious readers. Even if you bumped the percentage by reading 50 or 100 titles in a year, we’re talking about a drop in the sea. “It is quite impossible to keep up or even to tread water,” says comedian Simon Evans about the flood of books.
Add to that the multimillion titles from prior years and decades—not to mention other countries—and there’s a crazy large chance if someone asks you whether you’ve read any particular book, the answer is no.
Except a lot of us lie.
BookRiot recently asked its audience to list books they’ve pretended to read and compiled a top-twenty list from the more than eight hundred readers that responded:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (85 mentions)
Ulysses by James Joyce
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
1984 by George Orwell
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (21 mentions)
Most of these are classics, which means there’s a high degree of ought-to-edness at play. Maybe we feel a little embarrassed we haven’t cracked Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment so we just nod our heads like we have—or outright say as much—and hope our interlocutors won’t press for details.
Literary Hub asked memoirist Gregory Pardlo to name a classic he feels guilty for leaving unread. His answer is both revealing and amusing:
Whenever someone references a book I haven’t read, but they assume I have, I turn into an amateur mentalist reading and mirroring that person’s facial cues to give them the impression that of course, it goes without saying, I was thinking the exact same thing, there’s no need to discuss it further, we’re on the same page. Then, the first chance I get, I pull up a summary of the book online or worse, I pull it off the shelf at home and skim enough to figure out what the point was that I had earlier cosigned. Sometimes I do more than skim. Sometimes. But for the sake of the question, I’ll expose myself to eternal tsk-tsking: I’ve never read Faulkner.
Me neither. I’ve tried. I never made it far; some of those paragraphs are impenetrable. And despite my appreciation for Dostoevsky, I’ll readily admit I’ve started The Brothers Karamazov more times than some people quit smoking; I can’t make it past page 100. “A certain fuzziness now surrounds the question of our relationship with a given book,” says Evans. “Some, we’ve read. Others are more ‘browsed with benefits’ or ‘it’s complicated.’ A wink, evasion and fudge.”
Pardlo’s tactic of surviving such “have you read?” moment mirrors LifeHacker’s advice on how to feign familiarity with books unread. The final tip, “Read the book a little,” reminds me of a creative dodge used by Bill Kristol. When someone would ask him if he’d read such and such book, he’d nervously and knowingly respond “I’ve read in” the book; that makes sense and doesn’t strike me as actually dishonest. Same with Evans’s tactic of saying “I know” this or that book.
Then again, we could always just admit the full truth and get on with our lives. Along those lines, I appreciate this from Booker-nominated novelist Karen Joy Fowler:
I made a New Year’s resolution to stop pretending I had read books I hadn’t. This necessitated a crash course in all those I had already pretended to have read. Given that it’s generally conceded to be a great book, I shouldn’t have been surprised to really like Moby-Dick, but I did and I was.
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¶ Rereading books. There’s another bit in the Fowler interview worth attention:
I am one of the legions of women who reread [Jane] Austen regularly, and am always surprised by how often I see something new. As a teenager, I was all about the romance. During college I focused on how few options women had. Then I had children and noticed admirable mothers in Austen were mostly dead.
Reading Austen continued to change for Fowler as she became a writer herself. She “saw her unusual plotting choices, her uncanny ability to be both present and absent on the page.” A book says what it says—right up until you see it says something else, something more.
“The words in a book you love will not change from year to year,” says writer Joseph Luzzi, “but your interpretations of them will if you read them at different times of your life.” Atlantic writer Derek Thompson puts it this way: “One of the pure joys of getting older is re-reading books you loved as a kid and realizing there’s a whole book living under the book you thought you read.”
If I could change anything in that quote, it’s this: a whole other book lives under the cover. An author writes one book, but the world reads many different books—it’s the same with us, even when we reread. “We never read the same book twice,” says Drake professor Patricia Prijatel.
Are there any books you should definitely reread from childhood? I’m reluctant to be so directive, but the folks at BookRiot have an idea; here it is. I can confidently endorse rereading A Wrinkle in Time. Incidentally, Ann Fadiman edited a collection of essays by authors revisiting books they love. I’ve never read it.
¶ Revealed in a dream. Normally, authors cite their sources to (a) let readers know where they got their ideas and (b) point us to those sources so we can check them ourselves. Sometimes (a) is frustrated by incompleteness; whereas (b) might be frustrated by the obscurity or inaccessibility of the sources.
Nicolas Berdyaev gets the prize for frustrating both (a) and (b) while providing one of the most delightful footnotes in publishing history. See note 1 below: “This was once revealed to me in a dream.” Oh, was it now?
The quote lives on in a bizarre and nichey afterlife. I’ve heard of people hunting down a copy of the 1949 book just for the footnote. Ted Gioia approves:
You can find it on memes. And you can, should the mood strike, buy a sticker of the note to adorn whatever.
¶ An inspiring story about the challenge of expanding reading in low-income areas. “Araba Maze noticed neighborhood kids gathering around her as she read children’s books to her niece on her front stoop. As she wrapped up storytelling, one of the kids asked, ‘When are you gonna do this again?’” Maze began reading daily to neighborhood kids and even became a librarian. When she realized kids weren’t coming to the library, she started an organization to take the library to the kids.
¶ “Portable magic.” That’s what Stephen King called books. Their portability means they’re wonderful companions for travel, both on the road and safely at home.
¶ What if you just can’t finish a book right now? This is not a problem from which I suffer, generally speaking, but there are rumblings it’s a growing problem for many. “Call it a book slump, call it reader’s block, it happens to all avid book lovers at some point,” says the same Patricia Prijatel quoted above.
We start a well-reviewed book or one recommended by a trusted friend. Ten pages in, we’re yet to be engaged. Yet to care about a character, a plotline, an anything. We try another. Same thing. No go. DNF: Did not finish.
What’s going on here? Prijatel offers a handful of suggestions, including stress and mental fog. Some of her solutions seem worth consideration: rereading old favorites, trying different genres, or just getting out for a long walk.
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Does re-listening to books on audio count? I think I'm on my third re-listen to All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Plus I've done that with Tony Hillerman and Craig Allen Johnson books. Hmmm.
I realized a few years ago that I'm surrounded by roughly two lifetime's worth of books. And that's OK. I'll do my best. I likely will not read "Brothers K," despite a good Russian friend's urgent and repeated recommendation. I will certainly never read Joyce. One of my dearest friends in the world told me I should give "Moby Dick" a second chance, having actually had some life experiences. I probably will. I read and reread a lot of Conrad about seven years ago. I want to read and appreciate more poetry. There is so much about Robinson Jeffers I love but don't fully grasp. I accept that it's all too much. I'm grateful for what I can get.
Thanks for all that you do here, Joel.