How to Lie About the Books You Haven’t Read
Having spent my undergraduate years as an English major, and much of my twenties and thirties as an autodidact, I’ve read my share of canonised literature. Much of it is great. William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dostoyevsky… I could go on. And while I still return to these works, I’ve always been more interested in what I call the Sub-Canon, those works that are (sometimes) respected by academics but pop up less often—or not at all—on syllabi. These are the books written by Mikhail Bulgakov, Kurt Vonnegut, Jeanette Winterson, Reinaldo Arenas, Orly Castel-Bloom, Dubravka Ugresic, Flann O’Brien… again, I could go on.
Most of my post-college reading has been spent with these sub-canonical writers. Heady stuff, to be sure, though the last time I uttered the name Kurt Vonnegut to a tweed-clad professor, the pompous man in question dismissed my taste as “light.”
While I’m ready and willing to defend my literary heroes, I will admit to feeling lesser than when in the company of these tenured snobs, especially when I consider all the great books I’ve not read.
Like a lot of people, I’ve lied about finishing books that I’ve abandoned. Rather than admit that I couldn’t get through The Idiot or The Grapes of Wrath, I, when asked, say that yes, I have read these books. I’ve banked on the interlocutor ceasing their inquiry, and I’ve been lucky inasmuch as they probably haven’t read The Idiot or The Grapes of Wrath either. I’m sure both of us were simultaneously worried that one of us would ask a question or mention a detail that would unmask the other. But the fear of exposure kept us from making a sloppy mistake. We’re not going to lie about books we haven’t done some cursory research into. I can discuss Madame Bovary without having finished it. I know enough about Middlemarch to chime in a bit without giving away that I’ve not made it past page 50. My discussion of these or any of the many books I’ve perused without finishing is, indeed, well informed, but I’m fearful that the cocktail party of the future will see me, after one drink too many, utter some giveaway that will reveal what a fraud I am.
Most nights I watch TV. The days are long. I teach my classes, grade my papers, attend my meetings, then—if there’s energy left—write a bit. When it’s time to end my workday, I’m happiest with a drink on the couch, a dog on my lap, and the seemingly endless distraction of cable TV and Netflix. I bring a book with me to the couch, tell myself that I’ll just see if anything good is on, scroll through the channels, settle on a cooking competition, tell myself that I’ll watch it to the end, just to see who wins the dessert round, see the book waiting to be read, feel guilty for not reading it, tell myself that I’ll just catch the end of a movie on cable that I’ve seen five times already, finish the movie, see the book again, feel more guilt, flip through a few pages, decide my eyes need a rest, tune in a Seinfeld rerun, close my eyes and listen to the sound of familiar sit-com dialogue. An hour later, I wake to the sound of another Seinfeld rerun and the book at my side or, sometimes, under the dog who has used it as a sort of pillow. I then decide that it’s time to read, though I see the clock and realise that I’m supposed to meet my wife after she gets off work. I bring the book with me in case there’s a lull in our evening, though, more times than not, the book goes unread. We return to the apartment. I remove the book from my jacket pocket and place it back on the shelf where it will go unread for another day. I’ll read it tomorrow, I think. Less work to do tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow.
I’m likely not alone. Many of us don’t read as much as we feel we should. Thankfully, there are ways to mask our functional illiteracy. The next time you’re at a cocktail party and someone asks you about a book you haven’t read, choose any of the following replies:
- Please, don’t get me started on [name of author]. [His/her] prose is turgid and lifeless. I’d sooner read a grocery list.
- I found it to be didactic without being preachy.
- Oh yes, I gave it a whirl. Didn’t hate it. Some real tension in the story, but I read it so long ago I’ve forgotten most of the details.
- Ambitious to a fault, but not without its charms.
- The book showed promise. I’m more interested in what [he/she] will write next.
- Good, but it could’ve used some editing. The last chunk was a bit slow.
- I think I need to reread it to get a better sense of what the writer was trying to say.
- I wouldn’t sully myself with such trash.
Any of the above comments will put your party companion on edge and end the conversation. If you’re lucky, they’ll never again bother you about the books you haven’t read. Maybe they’ll stop asking you to cocktail parties and you can stay home and read more “light” fiction from the great sub-canon.