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Faking it

I started reading Will Schwalbe’s charming The End of Your Life Book Club recently and was delighted when, early on, I came across this line: “Raving about books I hadn’t read yet was part of my job.” Doing a double-take after reading that sentence, I realized that we publishing people do this all the time:

“What did you think about Gone Girl?” asks someone you just met at a friend’s house who, like everyone else who knows what you do for a living, assumes you’ve read all of the 500,000 or so books that are published each year (give or take a couple hundred thousand).

“Brilliant book!  Flynn is such a rare talent,” you say with conviction and then hope you can steer the conversation away from the topic before plot points are revealed that will spoil the book for you (when you finally get around to reading it) or that don’t actually exist and that will reveal your lack of familiarity with the narrative (few casual interrogators are that sinister, but they exist).

Thing is, why do we book people find it so necessary to pretend to have read something we didn’t.  No one knows better than we do that even speed readers will only get through, at most,  a few thousand books during their lifetime.  That’s what makes books so precious, in fact.  You have to spend time with them.  You can’t take in a 300-page novel in the way you take in a film or tv show.  The process of reading requires time, patience, and emotional readiness.   You don’t just read any old thing; you choose something based on mood, curiosity, intellectual questing, the desire to please a friend or mentor who really, really wants you to love their favorite book as much as you do, or particularly intriguing artwork on a cover.

It occurs to me that being well read is one of those things a certain segment of the population carries a big chip on its shoulder about.  There’s a competitiveness and a need to dazzle others with one’s breadth of literary knowledge that borders on the psychotic.  And, this impulse tracks across all categories (just start up a conversation about books with a sci-fi buff if you don’t believe me).  It seems to me that people in other professions aren’t quite so mendacious about their familiarity with every new development in their discipline.  But we book people just out and out lie constantly about what and how much we’ve read.

Am I wrong about this?  Are you thinking, “speak for yourself you pathological liar,” or do you agree that there’s something about books that brings out the braggart in us all?

6 Responses to Faking it

  1. Joelle says:

    I can’t lie. I just can’t quite pull it off…but I’ve been known to say, “Oh, I’ve got that in my reading pile.” when maybe I actually had it, but then gave it away unread or do have it, but have no intention of reading it. But I do know someone in the field of books who I just KNOW is lying about what she reads. I just know it! I never call her on it, but I kind of want to!

    I’ve read 123 books this year according to my Goodreads records, and many of those were short MG, and even some shorter chapter books. I also started many books that I didn’t finish. So I have to agree that reading is a commitment and I guess sometimes we want to look more committed than anyone has time or inclination to actually pull off!

    I think other people do this in their own ways related to their professions. Actors profess to have read a lot of plays or say they’ve seen a lot or claim to do a lot more auditions than they actually do. That I know for sure.

  2. Katie says:

    Miriam,

    I’m so glad I’m not in this world you speak of. I’m a terrible liar and have only in the last few years started reading Jane Austen. Two weeks ago I bought Anna Karenina. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to find Tolstoy. For me, it’s always been a matter of time, not interest. I read for school, then for work (newsroom.) At the end of the day all I wanted to do was sleep.

    Needless to say, bragging rights I do not have. Hopefully, people enjoy my lack of pretension and don’t think me uncultured.

    Next time you get around people with false expectations, turn the questions around on them. If you get them talking, they won’t ask you what you think (in most cases.) Psychology 101.

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    A stranger at a cocktail party, having learned I was an author, smiled brightly and asked, “Have I read you?” I replied, “No.”

  4. D.C. DaCosta says:

    I would guess that anybody who takes pride in his profession sometimes pretends familiarity with things he just hasn’t gotten around to yet. Doctors say they’ve read a study, dentists say they’re familiar with a technique, lawyers claim to have read a transcript.

    I don’t see how or why the book business (whether you participate in it as a writer, an editor, an agent, or even a gofer) should be any different. Do you have pride in your work? Do you want others to think you are up-to-date, in the know, “with it”?

    Hmmm. Maybe this is just an extreme example of peer pressure….

  5. EDWARD says:

    Mortimer J. Adler, whose book I read, claimed that any book which is worth reading once is worth reading three times. I grew up in poverty, in the slums of New Jersey, and attended awful schools. When I got to college, I knew I was woefully unprepared. When we were first asked to read ULYSSES at a chapter a week in college, it sounded like a cakewalk. I had grown up thinking a chapter of a novel was essentially a chapter of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, a book I had read in about three months with the rest of my high school class. The professor mumbled something during the first class that he assumed every one in the class had read Homer’s ODESSEY somewhere along the line. Of course I lied that I had. I was unaware how much that lie, which I had become adept at, was about to humiliate me. I worked and faked my way through college. I like to remember it as more working than lying, because that lends me more dignity and status, the reason I faked so much in the first place. In a society that measures much by status, faking is often the only way one can escape the class you were born into and acquire status; and it’s an awful way with brutal consequences.

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