Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me).
There’s a great poem by Joseph Bottum from a few years back called “Reading By Osmosis”, which I’ve always loved. It opens like this:
Mark Twain, Hart Crane,
and Ursula K. LeGuin—
We’ve mastered their books with a difficult trick:
We’ve read them outside in.
Percy B. Shelley and Machiavelli
and Norman Vincent Peale—
We’ve never tried opening one of their books.
We know them by their feel.
Does reading seem boring? Does reading seem hard?
Does reading seem too ferocious?
Then pick up a book and just give it a twirl.
You’ll learn it by osmosis.
Of course, as Bottum illustrates, this creates problems when you offer a comment on Watership Down “(concerning a boat and some sailors who drown)”. But you don’t have to read the whole thing, as it’s rather long.
A little more than a decade ago, Michael Kinsley pointed out how this trend became problematic in the political universe, where big thick books are deemed important enough to be purchased only to be placed on shelves, unread. He tried a little test on a must-read book at the time:
Figuring out which best sellers go unread is not easy, since most people don’t want to admit to the unfinished state of their reading. Much of the evidence is anecdotal. Bloom and Hawking, for instance, were the universal first responses when a small sampling of people in the book business were asked about unread best sellers. But a somewhat more solid indicator of unread books emerged in 1985 when Michael Kinsley, then of The New Republic, acted on his suspicions about reading habits in the nation’s capital. Mr. Kinsley and a colleague put coupons redeemable for five dollars each in the back of 70 copies of selected books in Washington bookstores. Two of the books were ”Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control” by Strobe Talbott and ”The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong” by Ben J. Wattenberg. Though neither was a national best seller, they were chosen, Mr. Kinsley said, as the kinds of books Washingtonians were most likely to claim to have read. No one ever redeemed a coupon.
Kinsley was referring to political books which have temporary importance (Game Change, This Town, and so on), not those which have more permanent value. These latter books tend to be the ones smart people really do buy, read, and at least pretend to understand – Proust, Dostoevsky, and David Foster Wallace, for instance. Smart people might lie about reading those. But there are also books which are supposed to have a broader appeal, the sort that are on booklist after booklist without actually being read, sometimes even by those who recommend them reading them.
Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list. Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.
The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.
So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.
10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.
9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.
8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”
7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.
6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.
5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.
4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”
3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.
2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.
1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.