Why We Lie About Reading Great Books

More than 60 percent of people pretend to have read books they haven't, according to a recent survey. And based on what we've learned in the past, we all lie about reading the same books over and over.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

More than 60 percent of people pretend to have read books they haven't, according to a recent survey. And based on what we've learned in the past, we all lie about reading the same books over and over, for a number of reasons.

For instance, 26 percent of the Brits polled in this most recent survey fibbed about reading George Orwell's 1984. And last year, when a few New York Times staffers wrote up a confessional post, two more people admitted to never having read Orwell's most famous work. “Actually, I’m sort of convinced that most people who reference this book have never actually read it," wrote one anonymous staffer. A 2009 survey to mark World Book Day found that 42 percent of people have lied about reading 1984, and it also ranked 6th on Book Riot's poll of books people say they've read but haven't.

Besides hinting that, more often than not, you shouldn't trust anyone who claims to have read Orwell cover to cover, we seem to be preoccupied with lying about having read the same sort of works. Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear on several lists; then there are the impossibly long (often Russian) tomes like War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Infinite Jest (aka Infinite Struggle); as for highly esoteric works like JR, Finnegans Wake and Molloy, frankly, it's pretty safe to assume the person is lying about finishing, especially if they claim to have enjoyed the darn thing.

These same books appear over and over in the polls mentioned above, but what the polls don't answer is reason for all this literary dishonesty. Why do we lie about reading books?

The most recent poll, released to promote The Big Bang Theory's season 6 DVD, would have us believe it's as simple as people wanting to appear intelligent. "The most popular ruse [to seem more intellectual is] pretending to have read classic novels, with 42 per cent of people relying on film and TV adaptations, or summaries found online, to feign knowledge of the novels," the study reports. That's all well and good, but if you're trying to impress people by lying about reading books assigned in most high school English classes — 15 percent of those surveyed lied about reading Catcher in the Rye, for goodness sake — you should really, really rethink that.

Another theory is that people lie because other people lie. Shalom Auslander, author of Hope: a Tragedy, argues in The Telegraph that there are certain books no one has read ever. He writes:

The great thing about these books is that not only does everyone agree they’re great, but nobody has ever read them. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is perhaps the best example. Nobody, I don’t care what they say, has ever read this book; I don’t even think Joyce read it. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is another one. Dead giveaway: “I liked Infinite Jest, but I liked (insert other DFW book here hoping to change the subject) better.” Have you read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000)? Bulls---. You’ve read of it, sure, but you haven’t read it. Dead giveaway: everyone who says they read it says the same thing: “It’s this multilayered narrative about this manuscript, and this documentary; you really should read it.” Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) isn’t a difficult read – there are no swirling lines of type or footnotes on footnotes. It’s just that it’s 1,300 pages, and no you didn’t. 

Again, there are elements of truth here, but it's a little extreme. Someone somewhere out there swears he or she got through The Recognition — and means it. We are sure at least seven such people exist in the United States.

Elizabeth Menkel, writing for The New Yorker's Page Turner blog in 2011, has a different theory. Reading big books, and lying about reading those books, is all part of some mental competition. As she puts it:

On one hand, we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end. On the other, the books we’ve sort of read and glibly lie about having finished. Both of these seem tied to some sort of reading scorecard, one in which the readers are measured and judged by—perhaps even more than—the books that they’ve read.

Menkel goes on to write that, "good books, no matter what their length, should suck you in and change the way you read, momentarily or, in the very best cases, permanently."

In other words, read what you love and love what you read. As for pretending that you just couldn't put down Finnegans Wake, best not to even try.

(Image via Shutterstock/maradonna 8888.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.