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?