Lying About Reading: Have You Done It?

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Christopher Andreae of the Christian Science Monitor has an opinion piece in the Gulf News on the subject, that reveals 40 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed recently have lied about reading the classics in order to discuss those classics with others. Andreae testifies never having stretched the truth as to his reading habits, though he does reveal the arduousness of ticking off Tolstoy on his reading list, and the damage done by lit classes at college that made reading the likes of Eliot and James a grade-driven chore.

I’m with Andreae — I think — that I’ve, too, not lied about having read certain books, although I must admit a slightly superior feeling at seeing the classics on my bookshelf, even though most of them remain unread. Is it lying to situate The Mill on the Floss in plain sight in the office and not rightly remind anyone impressed by the highlights of my collection that they haven’t each been digested? That they don’t inform my every literary opinion? Probably, but I figure it’s okay. I’ll read it one day. Why else do I have it, right?

Tom Roper, a Sussex librarian with an outstanding Typepad blog, saw the survey, too. He makes a great point that while the survey claims to have discovered a list of books most English “readers” lie about having read, it doesn’t point out whether or not these people openly admit they’ve read books they have not, or whether they simply don’t deny having read them when involved in conversation. See, now, while I don’t think I’ve lied about not having read a book, I may very well have simply quietened down, blended into the walls, when Wuthering Heights was the topic of the moment. Would anyone judge me for never having picked that one up (and, yep, I have it)? Would I seem less important? Less educated? Less, god-forbid, interesting?

Well, get this: Roper goes on to reveals those of the top 10 he’s made it through. And while I’m in awe of his tackling Tolstoy, I’m shocked he has little interest in Anne Frank’s diary. Tom! Why? And he’s read Harry Potter! I can judge him, right? Not only does he admit not having read Frank, he admits he likely will not. Damn — now I have to respect, at least, his honesty. I could never admit that — especially in company.

There are, though, lots of thing on this topic to lie about. I’ve lied about my response to a book so as not to offend another reader. I’ve certainly lied about having seen movies I’ve either never gotten around to or have no interest in. I’ve lied about thoroughly understanding a book. And I’ve often made out I know all about, say, the Lindbergh kidnapping based on extensive research than by reading a tiny chapter in Martin Fido’s veritable flipbook, The Chronicle of True Crime.

Still, with my transgressions now on the table, Emily Barton at Telecommuter Talk might chalk me up as a big fat liar, as she believes lying about books we’ve read is something we’ve all done. She writes: “I just love these organizations that spend lots of time and money doing research in order to tell us such things as all humans giving birth these days are female.” Wow, maybe I have lied about this? Maybe I have admitted to having read The Da Vinci Code in order to back up my assumptions that lovers of that book are nuts? Would anyone blame me, really? Wait … I just did the same thing with Harry Potter. So, I’m a snob. That doesn’t make me a liar!

In part, though, because of this survey, not only do I plan to be more honest with my reading back catalogue (i.e., to not blend into any walls), I plan, too, to get to some of those books I’ve longed wished I’d read. Then, next time someone comments on my Eliot selections, I might proudly express either my loving or loathing of the Mill and its Floss. Or, at least, I’ll know what those words actually mean.