Confession time: faking a reading experience
You’re in a coffee shop with friends (or bar, or restaurant, dinner party, whichever appeals to you most). At some point one of your friends begins talking about a classic book they thought absolutely superb, one maybe that had a big impact on them when they read it years ago. Being a book enthusiast you’ve heard of it of course. But you’ve never read it. Or you can’t remember reading it but feel surely you did because it’s such a classic?
Do you admit you never read it — and put up with the looks of astonishment that result?
Do you find a way to get out of the conversation, maybe even making a quick exit mumbling something about finding the loo/rest room?
Or do you assume your most interested look, dig deep into your head for anything you know about this book so you can at least make a contribution that gives an impression you’ve read it. Maybe you comment on how a minor modification in the punctuation of the opening of Moby Dick gives it a completely different meaning. Maybe you talk about reactions to the film adaptation and how it wasn’t faithful to the original. Anything really that gets you out of a detailed discussion on particular episodes, plot devices or characters.
Ever since reading Andy Miller’s Year of Reading Dangerously (see review here ) and his admission he had pretended sometimes to have read a particular book, I’ve been wondering if I’ve ever been in that situation. And if so, how I reacted.
I know I did once in college when keeping up with the reading list proved too much and I couldn’t finish the assigned novel, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in time (I never did finish it.) It made the subsequent tutorial so much of an ordeal I made sure it was never repeated.
Other than that, the only times I can recall are where a friend/member of a family has bought me a book they loved and then asked me for my reactions. Rather than offend them, I’ve skirted around the issue — commenting on the cover or the title for example, or how the author now has a new book out. Anything to stave off an admission a) I haven’t read said book because it absolutely doesn’t interest me or b) I couldn’t finish it because it was so poorly written. It’s hard work though so I think in future I shall simply be honest though of course, tactful.
So that’s my confession. Now how about yours? Have you ever had to pretend you’ve read something when you hadn’t? Why did you feel you had to fake it and how did you do that? I’ve mentioned two situations when faking it might be understandable — forgiveable even — but are there other extenuating circumstances you’ve experienced.
39 thoughts on “Confession time: faking a reading experience”
Two issues here. One is the being given or recommended books you have no interest in. My most excruciating experience was The bridges of Madison County. I did read it as the giver was such a lovely person, but I really had to fudge a response after reading it because I found it so obvious, schmaltzy and tedious. I think I commented on what she loved and that was the love story. Yes, I said, it was a beautiful love story and the characters behaved so well. They did didn’t they? I can’t recollect. Anyhow, you get the gist. I found something nice to say.
The other is pretending to read something. Now, here’s the thing. I have possibly done this but the cause has been lack of memory. I did literature at university and know what books were set. I know I read the ones I had to read – at least I seem to remember I did – but being asked now what I thought, well I may as well not have in some cases as I have forgotten many of them. Maybe there were one or two I didn’t read or complete, because I know in some semesters we didn’t have to read them all. My memory of what I actually read could be a little wrong!
I will admit though to being very poor in Russian and French classics. I’ve read few and no amount of pretending will help. I’d be seen through in a moment!
I found my old university reading list a few months ago and wondered if I had even been in college that year because I could barely remember reading most of the titles let alone remember anything about them.
Sounds like when I looked at my bookcase of read books there recently. There were a couple there I felt I’d never heard of let alone read, but there they were sitting proudly on my shelves.
I have never pretended I have read a book for any reason. I also am not ashamed about having not read particular classics, it has always seemed silly and pointless to me. I am a bad liar anyway and pretending will get me nowhere and there are so many books I can’t possibly read them all so there is no reason to be ashamed over not having read something.
After the university experience I mentioned, I’ve never lied either Stefanie. I just know someone would catch me out – i was told that the reason I wouldn’t be any good at poker is that I couldn’t hide my emotion if I got a great hand.
I see Guy’s already mentioned David Lodge’s novel, Changing Places, and the humiliation game. I finally read the novel a couple of weeks ago, although I’ve mentioned that game in conversation lots of times. Being around Cambridge, it’s usually way too dangerous to pretend to have read a book as the chances are your interlocutor will charge into a run of questions about it that are not yes or no answers. Easier for me to say, no, but I’d like to! 🙂
I’m going to have to dig out my copy of Lodge because I can’t remember that game at all. I imagine in Cambridge you’ll get a fair number of people engaged in some one up manship, claiming to have read the most esoteric book possible.
I don’t think I’ve pretended to have read a book I haven’t – though I must confess that having to read the entire Canterbury Tales for a Chaucer exam at University felt a slog too far (too lazy for the whole of Chaucer) So I thought I’d try an experiment and just read the academic critics, as there was an unfortunate strand in the department which seemed to validate the ability to discuss what the experts said more than the untrammelled experience of the reader. And, to my chagrin and also to a kind of cynical delight, it was one of the papers which got the best marks. And kind of said a lot about academia.
My major problem is that I have a brilliant short term memory and a hopeless long term one. This means I pass exams well, but weeks later, would plough them if I had to resit – so, I have read the books, but often cannot recall very much about them – except how I FELT about them. So in literary discussions about great classics read years ago I am worse than useless. Ooh, I loved it because – cue vague explanation of emotional mish mash, but inability to otherwise say anything!
And I’m also with your other commenter, readerbuzz. I’m often a bit lip-curly about bestsellers. Its because a lot seem to be plot driven, and I am definitely a character and writer style driven reader. Perhaps, more than anything, it’s does the writer’s voice speak to me, or is it the equivalent (to my reader’s ear) of someone with a voice it would hurt to have to listen to for more than 2 minutes!)
Well that was a risky experiment wasn’t it? Did you repeat it just to see if it was a fluke? I don’t have a great memory either so even when I have spent hours with a set of characters, I can never remember their names. My husband sometimes reads a novel years after and asks me about it, which can be challenging…
No, that was my final set of University exams. Mind you, I had been successful with the same technique on one particularly O level paper (that dates me, doesn’t it!) I loathed the Physics teacher, and she loathed me. I was particularly cross as she had stopped me from having cello lessons, as they would have made me miss 20 minutes of double physics every couple of weeks. She was perhaps wiser than I gave her credit for, as she said to me that my predilection for arts subjects – particularly extracurricular, with exams (music, drama) meant I was going to fail my Physics. I was determined, out of crossness, to prove her wrong. I loved Biology, and wanted to study Chemistry, too, but physics – bleuggh. So I learned great chunks of physics textbook, without having any comprehension, and simply PARROTED. And passed! So I’m afraid I was already a little cynical about a system which I decided was geared to tick box, rather than creative.
And, oh the arrogance of youth! My mother was a wonderful and erudite reader……but, to engage her in detailed debate of books she had read years ago……..she was so vague, that I do remember wondering if she HAD ever read those books………….and now I suffer the same way. It’s probably why I enjoy re-reading! It’s almost like reading for the first time, with shadowy memories surfacing to remind you differently
That’s a lovely anecdote. Imagine the smug look on your face when you passed
I am a pathetic liar, and so I upfront say that I haven’t read the book. There is usually a lot of surprise because so often it’s a popular book, but there you go, no one person can read everything.
So true Nish. I heard on a podcast yesterday that more than 200,000 books were published in uk alone last year. Even if yiu allow that many of them are non fiction, that’s stil a lot more titles than I could read in a lifetime
I have no problem saying that I haven’t read a book, however well recommended or known it might be. Saying I didn’t like a book that someone else is raving about is more difficult. In my reading groups I have no problem because we all respect each others’ opinions, but I have known it cause real offence. People can so often react as if it is they themselves you are rejecting.
It’s a touchy subject indeed. People do take anything less than fulsome praise as if you are making a judgement about them personally.
I didn’t study literature at university and never found myself in z situation where I had to read a lot of books I hadn’t chosen or where I had to take part in a complicated literary discussion.
I did find myself with books I had received as gift that were Awful with a capital A. Like you, I skirted around the issue.
We are such sensitive creatures aren’t we, skirting delicately around the issue rather than being honest.
The only time I’ve ever done it was in high school for a class. Thankfully my best friend was in an earlier class and told me what we thought happened didn’t!
I find it the opposite though that people assume I’ve read a book so they talk about things that spoil it for me and I’m like NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
That’s a very annoying habit, not far off the other annoying trait of someone telling you they thought the book you’ve just started reading was awful.
I loved these stories and while I haven’t been in this situation (most people I know don’t read at all! LOL); but I like the idea of just listening to the person wax on and on about the book. In my experience, most people will just want to talk and have you listen while wearing your most fascinated expression. Cynical much?
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I can just see you smiling and nodding as if you are completely engrossed while al the time you have no clue what they are saying.
I don’t think I have ever pretended to read a book that I have not read, but I have engaged in conversation implying a wider engagement with a seminal author than I may have had. Then I find myself smiling and nodding when the other person starts bringing up and comparing various titles of that author’s oeuvre when in fact I may have only read one or two!
That must be a tricky situation but at least if you’ve read something by that author you can draw on that experience.
In David Lodge’s book Changing Places, characters in an English dept.. play a game called “Humiliation.” The object of the game is to prove you’re the least-well read person in the room.
I think I could have a good chance, maybe not winning but certainly not in my usual bottom position when it comes to games.
I agree with everything Tamara said. That’s how I handle it, too. Though I do love it when I get to admit I’ve not read certain books or any books by certain authors and let the others all stare and urge me to get to it! (Obviously, they must unaware of just how many books I OWN that I have yet to read!!!) 😉 There are just not enough minutes for me to read everything I already REALLY want to read! 🙂
How do they react – mouth open in astonishment or do you get the same looks of incomprehension I’ve experienced?
Oh, I definitely get the whole range of expected (and unexpected) reactions! Typically, it encourages others to admit they’ve not read certain books/authors either! One of the members of the book club I facilitate admitted she’d never read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and the rest of us just turned toward her with these appalled expressions on our faces and exclamations of disbelief! I delivered a copy to her that week, she read it, and didn’t really like it! 🙂 But at least she caved to our peer pressure! lol
If someone brings up a book I haven’t read, I just say there are so many books in my que, I just never got around to reading that particular book. If I have read anything else by the author, I will offer that. If they have read it, that establishes some common ground we could discuss. If not, I let them tell me about the book & if it sounds interesting to me, I may go ahead & pick the book up. If the book just simply does not interest me at all, or the writing is too terrible to endure, I thank the person for the recommendation, tell them I started the book, but it just wasn’t for me without necessarily saying why. I’ve never felt obligated to read a book I don’t care for, there are too many as it is to find the time to read them all!
That sounds a good strategy Tamara. I like the idea of deflecting the conversation to a different title if possible,
I’ll be honest that no, I haven’t ever pretended that I’ve read a book that I haven’t. Of course, I don’t have a lot of family and/or friends who read the same kind of books I do. I do work at a library but if someone asks if I’ve read the book, I’m just honest with them: “No, I haven’t read Ulysses.” To be honest, in that particular case, I have no interest. However, I did read Moby Dick…no, really, I did. 🙂
Working in a library makes it doubly difficult because the users must expect you to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every book ever published.
I am like you, pretending to have read nine extra books for a literature class when I had no time. And the prof quizzed us on minute detail of the books too.
That must have been one class you couldn’t wait to be over.
Great question. The hardest thing for me is when someone names her favorite book (often by a bestselling author) and asks if I’ve read it. It’s so difficult for me to say that I tend to stay away from bestsellers without sounding like I’m a snob.
The other tricky thing is when people tell me they have a book they’ve just read…would I like to read it? The truth is…no. I already have heaps of books I’m hoping to read. But if they hand it to me, I read it. And I look for the good in it, even if it’s not my cuppa tea.
Here’s my Sunday Salon!
Maybe you dont need to say you don’t read bestsellers? Could you just say the particular book didn’t appeal to you? You are very kind though to read books that get foisted on you
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Thanks so much for doing that. I hope it generates some good discussions
You are welcome