Essay: How to Pretend to Have Read Books Without Really Trying

Ben Rowen, BFR Managing Editor

Like most college students—and like all who wear lens-less glasses—I entered freshmen year entirely assured I was uniquely well-read. My first year taught me three important things (in addition to imparting on me the wisdom that lens-less glasses picked me out as uniquely unlikeable):

First, my taste in books was not unique (however at the fringe the Beats wished they were, their stuff certainly became lame-stream).

Second, I was not well-read.

Third, point #2 did not matter because I could pretend to be.

Discovery of point #3 opened up the floodgates for my mind’s growth—the entire literary canon became my oyster. I did my best Pacman impression, consuming bullet-points of book plots from novels I could never dream of reading. A brave new world full of fresh ideas unfolded before me.

I learned some books are not written in English. I learned what resides in foreign–language idiom is entirely inaccessible to any English translation. And I learned saying ‘to translate is to betray’ was amongst the safest, best ways to prove I was a Deep Thinker, in lieu (trying to prove I can read French!) of actually being one.

And now, like many college students, I enter senior year entirely assured that I am uniquely well-read when it comes to Wikipedia synopses of famous books. Or in other words, that I am functionally well-read.

Although I’m desperate to feel unique, the truth is that most people lie about reading books all the time. According to The Telegraph, 62% of people pretend to have read classics to appear smarter.

Next-level pretend readers are even didactic about their views of these books they have not read. They assure you calling so-and-so a “classic” is a misnomer that denigrates the veritable distinction itself. (A book about psychology that I didn’t read estimates this special group makes up 85% of all English majors.)

Within the collegiate context, it’s no surprise people lie about reading things. College practically teaches doing so. Social science classes, in particular, assign too much material to possibly get through. The assignments end up being about how to best to pretend to have done all the reading, not actually doing it.

On a wider scale, people lie about reading books because it makes them seem smarter. This is intuitive, but certainly does not holistically explain why people fake reading resumes.

To demonstrate the explanatory-insufficiency of such a reason, I ask you to try enumerate the books someone you know has read. If you can, I ask you to think about someone who you think is smarter for having read a certain book.

Even if you can complete task one, I bet you can’t task two. This is because none of us is keeping tabs on others’ reading lists, outside of those of us in book clubs (although, even those people find far more interesting things about which to gossip).

And so, ultimately, outside of the specific conversations about a given book in which we are immediately engaged, seeming to have read something won’t get us far. People are not keeping track.

In fact, even within those specific conversations, lying probably won’t get you far. Saying you’ve read something is a remarkably boring soundbite. We all understand this, at some level.

So, more than simply trying to appear smart, we say we have read something we have not because doing so bestows us some comfort. Each successful faking convinces us that we have acquired enough intellectual clout to pass as such a reader.

The lying can even be aspirational. Someone affirming our status as an appropriate reader of a book convinces us that, perhaps, we should read that book. At the very least, when we lie about reading something, we may feel compelled to read a bit of it to be able to support that lie.

And yet, whatever benefits lying about reading may afford, we all realize it’s not something we should do, and we do so guiltily.

The problem with faking, of course, is not that you’ll get caught. You won’t. Any fool with a smartphone can covertly google things mid-conversation. Anyone will believe said fool because ultimately no one else cares; revelation of reading habits means little—we aren’t in second grade anymore. Your best friend is not going to talk about reading a “great book,” which he or she has actually made up on the spot. Your friend won’t then ask you if you have read it. You’ll never have to say “yes”; you’ll never have to eat lunch in the bathroom stall that day.

Simply put, if you fake reading a book, you’ll likely escape unscathed.

Rather, faking is bad, aside from its pretension, because it prevents one from truly learning. SparkNotes and Wikipedia are good ways to submerge oneself in seemingly unapproachable reading material, but they give a one-dimensional reading. Fluency in plot structure and vague, abstracted themes, as we all know, is not equivalent to mastery of a book.

Further, if one could simply own up to having not read something, one’s acquaintances would feel the need to explain the reason behind name-dropping a work, when they do. Conversations would not proceed vapidly, full of unexplicated referents.

Faking, in contrast, stops others from sharing their knowledge, because it does not give them a chance to. Others assume the faker knows everything already, so there’s no point in sharing.

As such, everyone faced with faking having read a book confronts one question: would you rather learn, or pretend to have?

In light of many people choosing the latter, here’s an easy rubric for determining what books someone has read:

  • How do you know someone has read Huck Finn? They went to a high school in the U.S.
  • How do you know someone has read War and Peace? They tell you they have (i.e. they namedrop like it’s hot).
  • How do you know someone has not read Infinite Jest? They tell you they have.

With this rubric in mind, and potential fakes exposed, I urge anyone considering pretending to reconsider.

Rather than posing as knowledgeable, everyone should just follow Hal’s lead in Infinite Jest, and should enter a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”

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