Apparently, Lorin Stein has never read Jane Eyre, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tender is the Night, but he tells people he has, or nods along in conversations when they are referred to.
What ‘classic’ books do you tell people you have read but really you haven’t? Up until recently I would happily tell people I had read The Great Gatsby and hated it, just to be awkward (I think I started this little lie aged about 16 and just ended up believing it so maybe I can be forgiven?). I read it about a year ago and while it didn’t knock my socks off, I’ve had to revise my opinion slightly. And yes, I’ve pretended to read Ulysses when really I have only ever read The Dubliners and probably only about half the stories in there at that. I have also never read Catcher in the Rye, but I always happily nod along when Salinger is mentioned. Bad Ali, bad Ali. And it doesn’t just stretch to the classics either, personally, I’m getting so fed up of people asking me if I’ve read One Day that I now say I have indeed read it just to shut people up (and to be fair I feel like I know the book cover to cover now, I’ve sat through so many conversations about it and read so many articles about the book and the film). A lot of the time if I’m chatting to people and they mention a book, new or classic, that I’ve never heard of, I will say ‘oh yes I read about that one’ or some such because even if you know there is no way you can credibly say you’ve read it without inviting further interrogation, saying you’ve read about it is the next best thing, and implies you’re totally on the ball but far too busy reading Daniel Deronda to get round to it just yet.
But why do we do this? (I know Lorin and myself can’t be the only ones).
I think one reason is all those bloody ’1001 books to read before you die’ lists (and I have been known to be susceptible to them on the past), where we now feel that if we haven’t read sodding Moby Dick we are somehow deficient as lit-aholics and really don’t deserve to be in the club anymore. Also, if people know you as a bit of a book worm, they do of course seem to believe that means you have read every single book published ever, and like any great showperson, you never want to let your fans down.
Also, the dreaded ‘cult’ book (see Catcher In The Rye), the one that people claim changed their life, the one you just HAVE to read, and sometimes you don’t want to read it but you just tell people you have, and even worse, claim it changed your life too, just for an easy ride. Or even if you’ve read the cult book and didn’t really like it, you tell people you did just so that you don’t get the freaked-out looks and the rising intonation at the end of the elongated ‘but whhhhyyyyyy?!’
And sometimes you just plain don’t want to look stupid. But I’m going to stop this nasty habit, I promise. And I’ll start here, in this new spirit of honesty. Despite what I have told MANY MANY people, I have only ever read one Austen novel, and that was Sense and Sensibility, not Pride and Prejudice. I’m sorry, don’t hate me.