What do you claim to have read, and why?


“Most Britons have lied about the books they read,” according to a Reuters headline. Not surprising, maybe, but it’s interesting to look at just which books they lied about. Top five on the list

  1. 1984 - George Orwell (42 percent)
  2. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (31)
  3. Ulysses - James Joyce (25)
  4. The Bible (24)
  5. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (16)

I’m sure the same is true on the West Bank of the Atlantic, although I suspect the lied-about list would read differently. My guess is that Moby-Dick would be at the top.

One other thing: The chief reason given for lying about books read was to impress someone. Fits in with one of the winners of a recent Washington Post word game. Readers were to take any word and, by changing only one letter, create a new word (with definition). My favorite was “Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.”


you`re obsexed! :open_mouth:

  1. Foreploy is hilarious.

  2. I wrote a line in a script a few years ago – a writer says: I wrote the book the whole country pretends to have read.

At the time, I was thinking about A Staggering Work Of Heartbreaking Genius, which kept coming up in conversation, usually followed by something like “I’m only halfway through, so…”

How surprising that 1984 is at the top of that list. It is such a short book, compellingly written and easy to read. I completely understand #2 and #3 as both of those take a significant investment of both time and patience, and have significant cultural bonus points.

The only person I’ve ever heard of who actually read the entire Bible was David Koresh.

I read about fifteen pages of A Staggering Work… and got tired of it.

Could 2666 be this year’s Staggering Work? I’ve only halfway through it, so we’ll see. :slight_smile:


Not to be off topic, but have you read 2666 yet? It’s on my list, but I’m working my way through some Neal Stephenson right now, and I’m bogged down by a man who apparently writes faster than I read.

Wondering if it’s as amazing as those who (pretend to) have read it claim.

I wasn’t joking when I said I was half-way through it. I’m roughly in the middle of the fourth part (second book). So far my opinion of it is quite high. I strikes me in a similar way as Calvino and some of Borges work in that it is witty and not afraid to document the kinds of things that other authors might skip over. The premise of the fourth part, for example, is to define the scale of murder that has been mysteriously alluded to in the beginning portions of the novel. Where most authors might describe a murder or two and then try to impress us with numbers, “over the summer another 30 women were killed…”, Bolaño goes into detail on each and every case, like a reporter or even a detective. The scale of 100+ murders is not simply described, but fully expressed across several hundred pages, with only a very loose narrative gradually increasing and transforming between the isolated incidences.

Being only halfway through, I cannot yet say if it is “amazing” or not, but it is my favourite new book thus far this year, and potentially the year before. The one thing that has struck me thus far is Bolaño’s incredible patience. He builds underlying themes beneath the running narrative at a staggeringly slow pace. It is like sitting in a rotating restaurant with an interesting dinner companion. You look up an hour later and realise the scenery has changed, but at no point could you have noticed it happening. A good example is the subtle increase in darkness and tension throughout the first part.

I’m not sure if I would call it brilliant (so far), but as an author reading another author’s work, I do find it very fascinating if not just in examination of some seldom used techniques. In this sense, it is a bit like a literary Pulp Fiction was to cinema buffs, in that anyone with an interest in literature will probably enjoy it to some degree—if not just for its technique and cultural cross-referencing.

To go back on topic: I don’t actually claim to have fully read Finnegans Wake, even though it is on my profile as a favourite book. I’ve read large portions of it (and not all together), but have yet to read every word. I suppose that is the closest I’ve come to fibbing. Given its circular and fractal nature, I’ve never felt guilty saying it is a favourite book, even though it is still a work in progress for me.

I saw this reported the other day. It amuses me that people feel they have to lie about the books they read; it’s also a bit of an odd top ten in many ways - Barack Obama being there is clearly overly topical, for instance. I love that the “real” top ten is full of Grisham and Jilly Cooper (I’ve read none of that lot; which sounds awfully snobby, I know, but they just don’t appeal - there are some mighty fine romance and crime writers out there that I have read, I hasten to add… hmm, well, maybe not romance, but that’s just ‘cos I’m not very romantic). I also love the fact that Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene competes with The Bible in the top ten - that gives me hope for humanity at least.

For myself, I’ve part-read much of the top ten: I’ve read quite a lot of the Bible (I’d be a pretty moronic atheist if I rejected belief without having explored it), but as Amber points out, who has really read all of it? I love Leviticus (it expels me from heaven on so many levels); and Genesis, with Moses claiming that the mountain God (clearly a volcano) is going to follow them, but now it will be “invisible” (heh, I’m oversimplifying), and Noah getting hammered on wine after settling following the flood… (I hasten to add that I am in no way trying to offend anyone here; I just read the Bible as I do other works of fiction and great literature.) Likewise, I never quite finished The Selfish Gene (it all seemed so simple and then I was completely thrown by game theory). Brief History of Time, too - I read most of it, then found myself gawping like a moron.

I forgive myself for not having read the entirety of the Bible, the Selfish Gene or A Brief History of Time. I forgive myself for not having read all of Midnight’s Children for another reason - Salman Rushdie is an unbearable bore. Or rather, he’s an intelligent, talented writer, but one who cannot stand to write anything without drawing your attention to the fact that he is an intelligent, talented writer. He is the Bono of writers (and thus how apt that U2 turned some of the turgid lyrics from one of his books into some even more turgid “songs”). I remember well the point at which I threw Midnight’s Children to the floor. In the opening section, we see a doctor get called out to a girl by her father time and time again. But because he is not allowed to see her, he can only treat her individual parts by viewing them through a hole in a sheet. And thus he falls in love with her body part at a time. Later, the doctor’s daughter or grand-daughter, or something (it’s been a long time since I threw the book down) marries some ugly oaf and isn’t exactly happy in her marriage. So she decides to train herself to love him. She does this by staring at each of his individual features, his body parts; she examines them and tries to love them. At this point, the reader starts to feel rather clever - A-ha! the reader thinks. How clever! This is just like the doctor and the girl he fell in love with through the blanket. Except Salman Rushdie is too desperate to prove how brilliant he is. He isn’t going to leave it up to chance that the moronic reader will figure this out for him- or herself, oh no! So at this point, just as you’re seeing this connection yourself, Rushdie interjects: “This was just like the doctor, and the how he had fallen in love with the girl through the blanket.” This was the point at which I said, “Yes, you’re very clever, good for you. Bye then.” And I haven’t read a word by him since.

As for the others… As Amber says, 1984 is a short book. Ruined for me by the “Shadowy DMJ”. I remember it well. It was in one of my university holidays or just afterwards, so I was 20 or so. Reading 1984. David came around to my Mom’s house, where I was staying in the holidays or before I moved to London (David and I lived next door to each other since I was born, L&L fact fans). He snatched the book from me and turned to the last page. I said, “Don’t you dare.” He said: “Don’t be a twat, the last line never gives anything away.” And then he read the last line of the book. I was on chapter 3. If you’ve read 1984, you’ll know that the last line of the book tells you exactly what happens to Winston Smith. Ask David. I have never forgiven him.

I’ve never read War and Peace. I keep meaning to. I love Anna Karenina.

I probably have no intention of reading Ulysses. Yes yes yes etc.

Remembrance of Things Past… Hmm, not really interested. Sorry, Proust.

Madame Bovary - oddly enough, I just last week finished reading the Geoffrey Wall translation. I think it is now my favourite book ever. I don’t know… My favourite books embrace Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Franny and Zooey, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slaughterhouse 5, Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina… I think Madame Bovary just slaughtered them all. How can anyone not love Emma Bovary?

Of course, all of this has been a pretence. I have read none of the above. I only read John Grisham.

All the best,

I really can’t understand why people would lie about books they have read.

I would be too scared that the person I was lying to was one of the few who weren’t actually lying about reading it… and they might start asking questions.

I don’t claim to have read books that I haven’t read. Can’t see the point. On the other hand, I sometimes claim not to have read books, then buy them and read them, only to find that they seem horribly familiar and that I have read them before. I hate it when that happens.

One book I have been meaning to read for ages is “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”, by Pierre Bayard, originally published in French as “Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?”. Given that I haven’t actually read it, I’m not really in a position to describe it! But about a year ago, I read an extract in the newspaper (or maybe it was an interview with the author, who is a French university literature chappy). Bayard described how reading is surrounded by obligations – we are expected to read a proscribed canon, to read it thoroughly, and to discuss it in a particular way. His argument is that we ought to challenge the rules confining how we think about and talk about books. I want to read his book, not because I want to talk about books I have not read, but because this interview/extract gave me the impression that it is actually an accessible opinion-piece on aesthetics in literary criticism, which sounds interesting. Has anyone here read it?

A question for anyone who pretends to have read books that they haven’t: Do you get extra kudos for pretending to have read a book in its original language? :slight_smile:

No - it’s on my someday list. (But isn’t there something peculiarly apt about discussing it without reading it?) I used to know someone who learned several foreign languages simply to read their authors. (Good for him, but he did always tell you…) And isn’t it one of the purposes of book reviews to enable readers to discuss books they haven’t read? I’ve always thought so. :wink:

One could probably add The Corrections to the master-list of literary snobbery, and just possibly Middlesex by Eugenides, and on this side of the Atlantic at least, virtually all Saul Bellow’s (unfortunately). I suspect The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell is due to suffer the same fate.

Of course, the flipside of all this is denying reading books that you have read. I think that for many readers that often used to be the destiny of anything by Stephen King, but less so now. And of course stuff once considered to be pulp by some is now seen as classical, such as Chandler.

So in a spirit of truthfulness, Keith, early Grisham isn’t too bad :wink: .


Or worse, half way through you find a well worn copy on the shelf. On opening the cover you find that is was presented to you as a gift by someone important. Like say, your wife. Does it sound like I speak from experience on this?

Bayard’s book is interesting, but I’m not sure if I agree with it in spirit - encouraging us to talk about books we haven’t read as though we have read them.

Actually, I haven’t read Bayard’s book at all. Given his subject, I figured it would be best not to read it but just to talk about as though I had. I meant to bring Bayard up myself - like Siren, I read a lot about it when it was published last year.

Hugh - your point about the flipside is interesting, denying reading certain books. I envy people who can read a lot of “trash” (can’t think of a better term - “lightweight books”?) along with everything else; I’m such a slow reader that I just don’t have time to read anything that I feel I’m not going to get a lot out of. I did read Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? the other year though. Toilet-reading at its best; it was hilarious. My other half is very lucky in that she is a very fast reader - so she gets to read more quality books than I do in a year, and she can consume Valley of the Dolls and various others too. I now feel really boring. Maybe I’ll read that Da Vinci Code sitting on the shelves just so I’m not such a snob any more…

Lady Of The House and her daughters and my daughters all regard books as proper gifts for the Patriarch. Were I to read nothing except books inscribed in a feminine hand, I would never reach the bottom of the pile. My only alibi may be to pretend the onset of senescent dyslexic syndrome.

Notwithstanding the odds that it is not pretense.

Fortunately, the sons favor Jameson and tools.


I’ve read so many books, I have to be careful just talking about books as I might get them get mixed up! But no, I wouldn’t lie and say I had read something when I haven’t. That’s just plain ridiculous.

Another thing I find a bit weird are people who join in book discussions when they haven’t read the book but rather saw the film adaptation instead. I can understand this only if the discussion is a comparison of the book to the film but otherwise…

Here’s what I have recently read or am currently reading which you might find interesting:

The Private Life of Chairman Mao
Red Star Over China
Getting Rich First- LIfe in a Changing China
The Selfish Capitalist
The Tipping Point
God is not Great
A Brief History of Time
Hot, Flat and Crowded ( This would be a good title for a book exploring the escapades which take place on Hugh Hefner’s bed on most nights of the week actually)


As a writer I’m getting asked “Have you read (insert current bestseller)?” regulary. I prefered to answer truthfully, which is mostly “no”, because in bookstores I head straight to the shelves with SF, Fantasy and Horror - not to those stacks at the entrance.

Then I get asked thinks like: You’re a writer and haven’t read (current besteller)? How can that be? Shouldn’t you try to find out what made it a besteller and try to write something like that?

I found it easier not to answer “no” straight away, but instead something like: “I flipped through the first few pages, and I can see why it sells, but it’s not my taste.”

Makes me look like a pro.

And pretending to have read whole books (and even understood them) … well, if you have studied literature that’s EXACTLY what you do all the time. :smiley:

Interesting that people lie about reading the Bible. And that so few people have actually read it.

I lied about reading some of the more tedious classics, but then I realized if someone was going to judge me based on what I have or have not read, I didn’t really want to hang with them anyway :wink:

What a curious selection. I can think of loads of books you might claim to read that aren’t there.

I have read 1984, which I thought was brilliant. I’m quite happy to confess I never made it through Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

I’ve read portions of the Bible - I have my mother’s elderly KJV from school, a Tanakh and a Chumash, which are translated in a more readable style than most Christian versions.

I’m curious to see no Dickens made the list. I thought those were the kind of books everybody claims to have read, the two most prominent being Great Expectations and Bleak House (at least in my experience).

I went through a period of “reading books I should have read” in my twenties, but I’ve now recovered from that and tend to read books that are just very interesting, or are recommended by people I trust.

In the end, you have to accept that you can’t read everything and just read what you enjoy.

I can’t imagine why anyone would lie about having read a book they hadn’t, but perhaps I just don’t get out much and don’t understand social positioning.

There are certainly plenty of books I’ve read partway and decided they weren’t for me–Proust heads the list, and Henry James in the third phase of his career. And I always have troubles with the Russians, probably because my simple Saxon brain doesn’t properly process excessive consonants in proper names. Didn’t keep me away from War & Peace, though–I found it a real page-turner.

But then I like Dickens, and Trollope, and Melville, and Austen, and Thackery, and Eliot, and Balzac, and Hardy, and Hugo, and Conrad, and the pre-nested-parenthetical Henry James, and whole crowds of long-dead scriveners whose books are long out-of-copyright.

Which probably means I don’t get out much.

That got particularly amusing while in school. I remember having to read Adventures of Tom Sawyer in high school, and realizing I’d already read it several years past. That happened with Moby Dick, too. (I’ve read one Grisham book, so at least I can say I don’t care for him.)

I’ve read the entire Bible multiple times. (Christian.)

I own Madame Bovary from high school reading, but I actually did enjoy it. I haven’t read those other ones, though 1984 and Brave New World are on my to-read list.

When I was an undergrad, I took a class in American Romanticism, which has become sort of my specialty in teaching (along with Romanticism in general). When we read Moby Dick our prof claimed it was the book all English majors claim to have read but haven’t. I love the book, but I can certainly see why people don’t tend to stick it through to the end, and I laugh in the face of those who suggest I teach it to my high school students.