In David Lodge’s classic 1975 academic novel Changing Places, the English-professor characters discuss a game of intellectual chicken called Humiliation. The rules are simple: Name a book you’ve never read, and earn a point for every person in the group who has. The more glaringly unusual the gap in your reading, the higher your likely score – but the greater your helping of the titular state of mortification.*
Judging from a recent poll conducted by the British TV channel Sky Arts, many Brits could rack up serious Humiliation points, if only they were willing to tell the truth. Among the two thousand people surveyed, more than half admitted to having lied about their reading, falsely claiming to have finished books they had barely cracked open.
Fifth on the list of twenty most-fibbed-about classics: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, lied about by eight percent of those surveyed. Austen is in good company, outranked by only the Bible (twelve percent), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (ten percent), Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (ten percent), and George Orwell’s 1984 (nine percent).
The reasons for lying were predictable: The fibbers wanted to look smarter or to join a literary conversation. In pursuit of these goals, they placed unread classics on their bookshelves, created social media photos of themselves with highbrow tomes in hand, or even memorized famous quotations. To conceal their ignorance of important details, they relied on screen adaptations or claimed to have finished books so long ago that their memories were fuzzy.
For many of the books on the list, it’s not hard to see why would-be readers preferred to lie rather than buckle down and turn those pages. Some of the books are very long and/or very difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
Other books on the list, while not so long and hard, are the kind of trendy non-fiction bestsellers that come up often at cocktail parties: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Read a couple of reviews, and it’s probably not hard to discuss these books as if you’ve read them.
But a few items on the list leave me truly mystified. Why lie about reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? It’s short, thrilling, and so easy to read that it’s a classic of children’s literature. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea each run to less than two hundred pages. Far from being highbrow esoterica, To Kill a Mockingbird is (allegedly) America’s favorite book.
And what to make of P&P’s presence on this list? It’s not all that long or, in my humble opinion, all that hard. I’d say the same about Nabokov’s Lolita and Dickens’ Great Expectations, two other favorite books of mine that made the most-lied-about list. I realize that many readers struggle with older prose styles, but really – give these a try!
Rather than feeling aggrieved on my favorite authors’ behalf, however, I will strive to feel smug instead. Obviously, if people seem compelled to lie about reading these books, mastery of their contents must constitute some kind of cultural touchstone, a Good Housekeeping seal of intellectual approval. And – nyah, nyah! -- I’ve read these books! I don’t have to lie!
OK, fine. Short as it is, I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea. Ditto for Gladwell, Hawking, Hariri, and Rand. Not gonna lie. Could we just talk about Jane Austen instead?
* Lodge’s relevant passages are excerpted by retired English professor Robin Bates here, on a blog delightfully titled Better Living Through Beowulf.