Talking about books you haven’t read

Book-Babel. Copyright: pindec

Book-Babel. Copyright: pindec

According to the results of a survey published to coincide with World Book Day, it was found that 65% of the British reading population often lie about having read books they’ve never taken down from their shelves. The book that is  lied about most often is George Orwell’s 1984 , followed by War and Peace , James Joyces’s Ulysses , Madame Bovary and the Bible. This is an odd list because it is easy to understand someone bluffing about having read Ulysses or Madame Bovary but not 1984 which is relatively short and easy to read. And why would you try to impress by claiming to have read the Bible from cover to cover?  

The main reason given for these false claims is a wish to apear well-read and a need to conceal the titles of the books that are really enjoyed.  John Grisham, Jilly Cooper, J.K. Rowling and Jeffrey Archer are examples of authors whose works are thought not to impress because they are too popular and likely to be classified as ‘good yarns’.

 The French academic, Pierre Bayard has written a book on this subject: entitled ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’ which advises the reader not to worry about their ignorance of the  great classics. (Look it up in the Library catalogue) He tells you how to bluff your way in literary company and talks about the many ways it is possible not to read a book. This covers a number of activities including skimming, “unreading” (i.e. forgetting) and screen reading. Bayard is of the opinion that  it is not possible to read everything so there is no need to be embarrassed about not having read works listed on the Literary Canon

 He thinks that readers should accept that we barely remember anything about many of the books we’ve read or have skimmed through or just read the beginning and the end. Some books  we know about through reading reviews or discussing them with our friends so in the end it feels as if we’ve read them so perhaps we’re entitled to discuss them in an authoritative manner.

The photograph  is of a pile of books all of which pindec, the contributor to Flickr,  was  in the process of reading in 2006.  As the mouse hovers over each title,  some notes tell how he hasn’t been able to finish an apparent masterpiece of magical realism or abandoned some huge tome because it is “hard to read in the bath or dangerous to read in bed”.  This photograph provoked a lot of comment on Flickr  at the time with other readers who agreed or disagreed with his findings and it is  comforting  to know that others have abandoned books in despair, not felt guilty and retained just enough knowledge of the texts to claim to have read them.


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