Sunday, March 8, 2009

The liar within us

Are you a liar? Because if you are, this one's for you:

• 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%)
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:
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.


  1. Very interesting post. You're right, no one should have to lie about what they've read to feel comfortable in any situation. I am ashamed to admit I haven't got through War and Peace, although I like Tolstoy's works very much. And it happens that I'm currently making my way through Ulysses after two aborted attempts some years ago. It seems to be taking this time, thank goodness. But I have never lied about what I read. And I didn't know that there was anyone who would not stay up late to finish a book. Live and learn.
    I'm enjoying your blog. I read the previous couple of articles too. I'll return when I have more time. And thank you for visiting my blog.

  2. When people say they have read ULYSSES, and when they say they think it is one of the greatest novels in English, I feel a bit left out because I have not been able to warm up to it enough to ever finish it. That adds up to some sort of heresy within my profession.

    When people say that they have read the Bible, I remain skeptical. However, let's give them the benefit of the doubt because they may be playing fast and loose with the definition of "read" (not to be defined as having read all of it).

    Well, come to think of it then, if I can use the same slippery definition as the Bible readers, then I too have read ULYSSES -- several times.

    Using the same definition, I think I can lay claim to having read all of Proust, too.

    To look at your "statistics" a different (and politically incorrect) way, who on earth would want to claim that they read the Obama book. And why? (The fact that the Obama book is among those listed is a curiosity unto itself.)

  3. "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?)"

    I would think the important thing is why someone is famous, not for how long. Not that I think that Dreams From my Father is such an incredibly important to read, but the time duration of the fame of its author is not why. (I would argue that Obama's other book is more important to read, except that I don't really think either book is terribly important because as you know I have an infinite and obstinate store of political cynicism.)

  4. I don't get the lying about what you have read. Really, if you come right down to it, isn't reading about entertainment? I am not reading for what other's think of me but for my own pleasure.

    That being said, of course I have read them all!
    Ok, really, I read the top 4.

  5. I don't know about lying on surveys, but I wonder if people lie about what they've read in social situations (which I'm taking to include educational contexts) in order to remain part of the conversation. Admitting to not having read 1984 (or whatever) in a group of people who have (or who are lying about it!) immediately sets you apart in the wrong way. I wonder if this tendency is less about books per se and more about remaining socially connected - because I'm sure people tell such small lies about pretty much everything (restaurants, movies, etc).

  6. I have only read 1, 2, and 5. I was just talking about how I rushed through Ulysses in order to write a paper for English class in college. Did I really read the book? I hardly remember anything from it. I can understand why people feel challenged not reading these classics and be all defensive about it. But 1984?

    I never turn to the end of the book to find out what happens, but I do turn to the end to find out how pages there are!

    As to pulp fiction like J.K. Rowling and Danielle Steel, I don't like to be seen reading them in the public. It has to do with the public image that i have sustained for myself! Ha!


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