Lying about Books, and on Trashy Literature

by Mark Wallace

Interesting little quiz on Buzzfeed here asking participants if they’ve read/ not read/ not read but lied about reading certain books. The most lied about books appear to be The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Bible and Moby Dick. Moby Dick, with 11% lieds and 16% reads, is the only book where the amount who’ve pretended to read it comes anywhere close to those who have actually read it. Not surprising, it is one hell of a boring novel/ tract on 19th-century whaling. I don’t lie about reading books much, but in seminars I often have to talk about or lead discussions on books that I may not have read in full – just the relevant parts. If it comes to it and a part of the book I hadn’t read comes up, I would usually admit this rather than try to bluff that I had read it.

But what it means to have read a book is a difficult question. In the Buzzfeed quiz, I answered no for The Bible: I haven’t read The Bible in full, but have read excerpts, and of course I’ve also been exposed to sermons, etc., therefrom. So I do feel like I know The Bible, in some ways. On the other hand, I answered yes to some slightly ambiguous ones, namely Ulysses and Atlas Shrugged. Did I read those books? Yes, but there was a lot of skimming going on at times. They are books I couldn’t discuss with any degree of confidence and I feel that I haven’t read them in the way they should be read, according to the reading conventions that surround them. This is especially true with Ulysses: of course I know it’s the great book of the 20th century (in English, at least), and that you can’t just take it to the beach and flick through it. Reading Ulysses means something among different to the people who read Ulysses, so the status of my reading of the book is questionable.

The other interesting inclusion was Twilight: interesting because there the options were read/not read/ read but lied about NOT reading. 9% had lied about it, i.e. pretended they hadn’t read it. I’ve read Twilight (only the first book in the series). Twilight functions as anti-literature: literature apparently so bad that it has a negative cultural cachet. An even better example of this would be 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve read it (again, only the first book in the series). Sadly they didn’t include it, but I suspect the numbers who lied about NOT reading would be far higher than even Twilight. 50 Shades isn’t just notoriously bad literature, its subject matter is also rather questionable in many circles. Thus I would suggest it is the most lied-about book around at the moment – the anti-Moby Dick in that you pretend you haven’t read it. A related point is that its success was enabled by the existence of Kindle and other ereaders. You don’t have to own a physical copy, and nobody has to see you reading it in public or even find it lying around your living-room. Just as Moby Dick and some of the other books on the list are books to own but not to read, 50 Shades is a book to read, but not to own, if one can help it.

Or, recall the Mark Twain quote: “A classic is a book everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read”. A decent definition of trashy literature might be: “A book that everybody wants to read, but nobody wants to have read”.