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I’ve never read Ulysses … Why lie about books you’ve read?

Back in the late nineties, I was a brash and curious university student, partial to wearing all black and spending hours poring over the works of the Romantic poets in the library. What a geek! I recall a conversation with a friend at the time, who told me that in order to impress a certain third-year student with a penchant for James Joyce, she had taken to carrying around a loaned hardback of Ulysses and had even engaged the object of affection in a conversation about the book. Impressed and having never read the book, I asked her what she thought of it. Her response: “Oh god, I haven’t actually read it! I just told him I had.”

A recent survey reported in the Guardian reminded me of this incident. Two thousand people were asked (I assume anonymously) to name a book they regularly lied about reading. Here is the top ten:

1 1984 by George Orwell

2 War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

3 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

4 The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

5 A Passage to India by EM Forster

6 Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

7 To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

8 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

9 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

10 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

So, other than to impress the object of your youthful affection, why lie about reading a book? I am both bemused about and sympathetic to this predicament. I think it shows that reading (especially reading certain books) is still seen as a desirable pastime, an indication of intelligence and culture. But what does inclusion on the list mean for the books? Does it make them aspirational reads? Or does it call their appeal into question? Do readers start these books and fail to finish them?

Interestingly the survey also found that 3% of those questioned had tried to disguise their reading material in public because they were ashamed of their choice. E-reading has changed the way we advertise our reading habits and many have pointed to the anonymity of devices like Kindles as the reason for the rise in popularity of erotica. If you’re clever you can claim to be reading Salinger as you plough through the latest schlocky thriller on your e-reader. I’ll admit to having read Fifty Shades of Grey but I will quickly clarify that I read it for a review piece … don’t judge me.

So, have you ever lied about reading a book? What were your reasons: did you want to impress someone, to fit in, to be part of the cultural zeitgeist? Why haven’t you read that book? Lack of time? Lack of energy? Do you just not like the style, the author, or the subject? Go on – confess to us in the comments below!

Here is my own confession: I have never read Dickens. Any Dickens. I’ve tried. I really have, but I have never made it through a Dickens novel. I acknowledge that Charles Dickens is one of the most important writers in English history. He’s just not for me. I have read Orwell’s 1984, though. And if you’re one of those people who have it on their “pretend to have read” list – you’re missing out.

Caroline 

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5 comments on “I’ve never read Ulysses … Why lie about books you’ve read?

  1. Tracey
    September 10, 2013

    Great post – though I actually think one of the problem is, if you’ve read a lot of books, some of these are such part of the cultural consciousness that you end up thinking, wait, *have* I read that? There are books I’m convinced I read at school or college only to pick up years later and realise I never actually did…

  2. Jack C
    September 11, 2013

    I don’t recall fibbing about any books. I have read Salinger and Orwell from the list above. I may have read A Tale of Two Cities which is probably one of the easiest of Dickens’ works. But one thing has always puzzled me – how on earth did people manage to read those 18th and 19th century novels in such small print with no electric lighting? Were the only readers those from rich families who had no work to do and could read during daylight hours? Even with the benefit of electric lighting, I never had the strength to finish any of them, even if they were set texts!

  3. Paul Blaney
    September 11, 2013

    I’ve been lying so long I can no longer recall what I’ve read or haven’t.
    Or maybe I’ve read everything?! (Some students seem to assume this is the case.)
    Did I finish Moby Dick? Or did I just start tearing out random chapters?
    I certainly never finished The Rainbow. DHL should get an award for most interesting, least readable author.
    And I read Ulysses at sixteen, on holiday. Insufferable teen!

  4. Rhys
    July 25, 2014

    I have read two of those. Two. Also, no Great Gatsby, and very little Shakespeare.

    Seriously? No Dickens?!

    • redbuttonpublishing
      July 28, 2014

      No Dickens! It’s a controversial stance, I know. Charlie and I just don’t get along.
      Caroline

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2013 by in e-readers, On digital publishing and tagged , , , , , .
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