This, courtesy of "Spread the Word" is (justifiably and unjustifiably) getting quite a bit of attention throughout the web. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian wrote interesting summaries; I'm sure many others have too and I've just missed them. Still, I like this paragraph from the Telegraph:
• 65% of people have lied about reading a book they haven’t, with 1984 being the most popular book to pretend to have read
• 41% of respondents confess to having turned to the last page to find out what happens before finishing a book
• 96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book
George Orwell’s 1984 tops the list of books that people pretend they have read, in a survey carried out for World Book Day 2009 to uncover the nation’s guilty reading secrets. Of the 65% who claimed to have read a book which in truth they haven’t 42% admit to having said they had read modern classic 1984.
Those who lied have claimed to have read:1. 1984 by George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (6%)
There are a number of ways to negotiate the minefield that is unread literature. The best recent guide, which, as you'd expect, I haven't read but skimmed, is Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. The author, a French university literature professor, divides books into those we are unfamiliar with, those we've glanced at, books we've heard about, and books we've read but forgotten. He recommends you bluff freely, skim novels if you want to and if you're challenged about an author you haven't read, just backtrack. But the beauty of the work, the Frenchness, resides in the fact that it's necessary at all. These are coping strategies for a culture which has certain canonical texts which, as Bayard claims, "it's practically forbidden not to have read". Don't you love that idea? I bet you anything the number of books you have to lie about is far longer there than here.So here's what's interesting: People enjoy books by J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but don't want to say. And on the other hand, they want to say they've read books like "1984" and "The Selfish Gene" (which, by the way, is the surest way to fall asleep... a most interesting book, but so amazingly boring). Some analyze this as a positive sign for the literary world. Someone mentioned how clearly this is a sign of how important reading is in our society, that we want to tout our knowledge and intelligence. Others find it a little weirder.
I find it a little weirder. While, sure, "War and Peace" is a great book (it's way more readable than it looks) and "1984" has its sparks of genius (even if it's pretty boring often), if someone hasn't read it, they shouldn't feel ashamed to the point of lying about it. I have read 2/3 of the Old Testament but I haven't read "Ulysses" (yet!). The two most surprising titles for me are "The Selfish Gene" (seriously?) and "Dreams From my Father" (they know the man's only been famous for about two years, right?), but this entire survey and the conclusions that emerge - that readers are very self-conscious about their reads - should give most readers quite a bit of food for thought. Should I be ashamed that I enjoy reading cheap fantasies or romances or law books? I'm actually throwing out examples here - I'm not a huge fan of romance. And if I am ashamed, does that mean I should specifically lie about it to make myself seem smarter?
A good solution is for everyone to read these "wish I'd read 'em" books so that they won't lie when asked about them. Another, simpler, solution is just to understand that each person has their own distinct, unique literary taste. Public perception shouldn't harm that. So what's the point of this survey? I don't know. Does it really say anything? I don't know.
And then, returning to the original survey, there are those "extra" stats. "96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book." I was not aware that I needed to admit this. And as for the 41% who read the last page of a book to find out what happens before finishing? Another time.