Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Reading and Pretending to Read the Classics

This Christian Science Monitor article reassured me that I was not the only one out there who is afraid to lie about having read any particular book. I've seen so many articles lately about which books are most likely to be claimed as read by people who never bothered to crack the covers (Ulysses generally tops the list) that I was starting to think I was the abnormal one, not them. Personally, I wouldn't dare lie to anyone about having read some book because, with my luck, I would choose the one person in the room who particularly loved it and wanted to get into a detailed discussion. I have enough trouble remembering the details about the ones I do read that I don't think I could fake a discussion about one I haven't even held in my hands.

That's why I can't even imagine having this kind of nerve:
I had a friend who joined a London book club. He found the day of reckoning – when the members were to sit in a circle and discuss the latest book's merits – always arrived much sooner than he expected. His wife, also a member, would actually read the book. All he would do was rush through the blurb on the flap at the last minute. What flabbergasted his diligent spouse was that he would then expound the virtues and failings of the book with such authority that he always got away with it.

If you aren't a true bookworm, self-confidence is everything.
I wonder, too, how many of us experienced the kind of "university reading burnout" described here, as a result of which we, at least for a time, lost our ability to read for simple pleasure rather than for test scores and status among our peers.
Attending university put an end to this. Not that I stopped reading books from start to finish, but the reasons for doing so had altered. The pressure was on. Not only were we expected to read "The Mill on the Floss," "Middlemarch," and quite possibly "Adam Bede" in a week, but then we had to write a long essay about George Eliot's sense of tragedy (or some such thing), ready for the weekly tutorial. Agony! – particularly on summer days when all I wanted to do was float on the River Cam in a punt.

Then there was that other compulsion to read – the fact that fellow students all knew E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence backward, and if you didn't, you would seem next to useless socially.

Under such duress, the pure pleasure of reading largely went out the window.
As much as I love the classics, I couldn't force myself to read one for simple pleasure for several years after I left school. And it's only now that I've reread them for the right reasons that I truly appreciate all the ones I was forced to almost speed-read while at school.


  1. I am not a good liar and would be found out so fast it isn't worth even trying to bamboozle anyone about a book I haven't read. Besides, fibbing about books doesn't make sense to me anyway.

  2. You know, Stefanie, I've seen men pull this off in business meetings on a consistent basis. They come into the meeting totally unprepared, listening carefully to the thoughts of others until they can repackage the best of what they have heard into some kind of coherent statement. If they are confident enough they can come across as sounding like the brightest guy in the room. It's disgusting, but I suppose that I should consider them to be talented in their own special way.

  3. I'm not a good liar either. There are times I have read something and am so tongue tied about talking about it that I probably sound like I haven't read it when I have!! For a long time after school I didn't read many classics, and I am sort of glad I am experiencing a lot of them now when I am a bit older. I think I have a far better appreciation and understanding of them.

  4. I'm with you, Sam - I'd be too afraid to lie about reading a book; I know I'd get caught.

    I remember not being so ready to graduate school so I could finally read the books I wanted to read. Once it finally happened, I didn't finish a book for over a month. I started some, but I think I got to excited about not having to finish it in 2 days or something. It was weird.

  5. The guy fake-reading a book for a reading group reminds me of the episode of "Seinfeld" in which George has to read "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for a reading group. Instead of reading the book jacket, he rents the movie. He still gets caught lying. : )

  6. I was burned out after college, too. I was an English major and had to read a lot of stuff that I thought was crap, actually (like "Ulysses"). I read nothing but science fiction for the year after I graduated -- I read just about everything Harlan Ellison wrote. Then I switched to trash romance novels.

    Now I am able to read classics for pleasure again. (Over 20 years have passed, though!) Dickens and Hardy are way better than they were when I was an undergrad, but I don't think I ever want to read anything by Joyce again.

  7. That's exactly my problem, Danielle. I have hard enough a time discussing the ones I actually read...I'm not about to try to fake one. Although, it wouldn't surprise me to find that my fake comments are every bit as articulate as my real ones, which goes to show you just how articulate I am. :)

    Anne, you seem to have gotten over the "classics burnout" quicker than most of us. It took a lot longer than that for me.

    J.S., I'm a huge Seinfeld fan and that was one of my favorite episodes. Thanks for reminding me of that one. I'm going to have to see if it's on one of the Seinfeld DVDs that I you happen to remember what season that episode is from?

    Class Factotum, I sure hope it didn't take you 20 years to get over that great Rice University education. :) I absolutely love that Rice, with its high academic standards, still manages to compete in sports with all the big state schools.

  8. I never actually got burned out on the classics. I got burned out on reading everything so daggone fast without being able to take the time to enjoy it. We didn't really read that many "classics," which I find kind of sad, truth be told. I think there are some books I'd like to read but that I'd only get around to if someone made me, but no did.

  9. That was more the effect it had on me, too, Anne. They trained me to read so fast that it just wasn't fun anymore and I had to learn how to slow down and read for pleasure again.

  10. Sam -- It didn't take me 20 years to get over the burnout -- more like 3 or 4. (That was when I got rid of the TV, too, coincidentally!) I still like my brain candy, but I have to read substantive books, too. Hemingway is way better now than he was when I was in college. Who knew?

    I like how graciously you put it about Rice competing athletically with the big state schools. Yes, Rice *plays* them. But *wins* against them? Maybe in a parallel universe somewhere!

  11. Glad to hear that it only took 4 years, at most, for you to get over the burnout. The one thing that we all seem to have in common is that we can now fully appreciate those books for what they that the pressure is off to read two of them every week.

    BTW, I've got some great memories of those Rice baseball teams that have done so well since the arrival of Coach Graham. I've been a fan of his ever since he coached at San Jac. The guy is amazing and I try to catch a few Rice baseball games every season.