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Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

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). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….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.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

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.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

16 Responses to “Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So”

  1. Sean Paul Kelley Says:

    I take pride in the following:

    War and Peace, Decline and Fall, Grant’s Memoirs, Herodotus, Thucydides, all three volumes of Kissinger’s memoirs, plus Diplomacy. Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Iliad, the Odyssey, Moby Dick, Caesar in the Latin, Crime and Punishment, Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1, Foucault’s “The Order of Things,” Dante’s Inferno (two different translations) and finally, On War. I’m sure I am missing quite a few.

  2. Eddie Says:

    Dawn to Decadence and de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

    I e-read a lot but have escaped the ‘mark-up’ quandary by using notecards for chapter notes and pg #’s. I then hole-punch the corner or rubber band them together and file them.

    I had to do this because so many of the books I was reading were from libraries and a notebook wasn’t getting it done.

  3. Ray Says:

    I have read, Hagar the Horrible in the comics section of paper. I also have read numerous history books on various cultures. Most recently I have read.”Patton’s Panthers: The African-American 761st Tank Battalion In World War II”
    by Charles W. Sasser and “Geronimo’s Story of His Life”
    by Geronimo, S.M. Barrett and “Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath”
    by Michael Norman, Elizabeth M. Norman. This last on I read and compared it to the stories my Dad told me about this and his 4 years in Japanese POW camps. I enjoyed all of these but I admit I use SCIFI books as a mental break. Such as Star Trek and Dr.WHo.

  4. T. Greer Says:

    Does referencing a book when you have only read that excerpt fro it published in the New Yorker or a chapter in Google Books count as lying? Because I do that all the time.


    I’ve read Anthem, and The Fountainhead but I refuse to touch Atlas Shrugged. Just don’t have the time for that. Also read 8, 7, 6, 3, and 3. Read substantial sections of Tocqueville every year. Usually end up reading a new translation of Sunzi every year and a half or so(this one really should not count as a ‘hard’ book — translations are rarely longer than 100 pages!). Inevitably I come back to Machiavelli every few years or so with the hope that if I read him just once more time I will finally figure out why he is considered so brilliant. I am always disappointed. Read Les Mis this year for the first time. It took three months, but it was worth it.

    I also recommend the musical.

    Others I could say I am ‘proud’ of:

    Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji)
    Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddihmah
    Polybius Histories
    Thucydides Peloponnesean War
    Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms
    History of the Mongols

    Maybe a few more. I’ll have to think.

    I realized a few weeks ago that I keep saying phrases like “Plato’s philosopher king’s” without ever having read The Republic. So that is on my bed-stand. Hope to finish it before the New Year.

  5. Lewis Shepherd Says:

    Here’s a book I avoided for a while because I thought it would be “hard” (Nobel-winning for its author after all): Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, which from the first few pages became a real page-turner. By the way, on the topic, my wife claims (with no source) that a journalist once asked Canetti, on seeing his voluminous office library, “My God, have you read all these books?” to which he replied, “Oh no, these are just the ones I have to read this week.”

    Also, looking for the source of that (unsuccessfully) I came upon this, by Canetti in The Human Province:

    “There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.”

  6. Terry Barnhart Says:

    Exceptional quote Lewis. It speaks to much of my moving history. Thank you!

  7. carl Says:

    Books on tape, cd, disc or whatever the currently leading edge of tech is nowadays make it a lot easier to learn what is in a ‘hard’ book.

  8. Grurray Says:

    I read The Glass Bead Game this summer after reading about it over and over in Charles’ posts. I thought it would be “hard”, but it was really rather pleasant and at times quite amusing in parts. Thankfully, I had the hipbone/sembl background to understand the game.
    The Fountainhead was for me the book described in Lewis’ quote. Both my wife and I had separate copies for years but neither one of us ever read it. Finally one day I finally pulled if off the shelf and read it. The best part was chp 11 when Roark and Wynand were on the yacht discussing ‘second handers’. That’s probably the only thing you need to read to understand Rand’s philosophy. Everything else is redundant.

  9. Grurray Says:

    I should add that there was an unpleasant part about Glass Bead Game in the narrative sense. There were three short stories at the end that were sort of Twilight Zone-ish, but in a good way.

  10. zen Says:

    Hi bookish Gents,
    Sean Paul, I envy you your having read Grant, Ovid and Caesar in the original. Nice!
    Eddie – note taking could be another post in itself. I’ve never found any one way satisfactory.
    Ray – I have not thought of Hagar the Horrible in years though I recently read of Olaf Crowbone
    T. Greer – Certainly not. citations have their own rules and in academic research, outside of classics which are fundamentals in a field and need to be read, scholarship would grind to a halt if every book in a bibliography of even a short book had to be read cover to cover before it was used. I think with academic work we act on the presumption that a scholar has a working familiarity with the literature of their field and come to their research with an established context in which the research is taking place (which may account for the blindness/cognitive dissonance when somebody stumbles upon a revelation that overthrows a major assumption of the field).
    Lewis – adding Crowds and Power to my list. Great anecdote!
    Carl – true. You can grasp more, faster and with less work in a “good enough” way
    Grurray – I need to read the Glass Bead game too. I thumbed through a copy at Scott Shipman’s house once but that is as far as I got. Agree that is a key chapter, though you could pull a few speeches from Atlas Shrugged that hit similar notes.

  11. Lexington Green Says:

    The Canetti quote is perfect. This has happened to me many times.

    I am happy to have read all of On War, which many of us did together a few years ago as an online roundtable. I am also happy to have read all of Democracy in America, straight through but in small digestible chunks with a few friends who met periodically to go through it together. I would like to do the same thing with the Wealth of Nations one of these days.

  12. Grurray Says:

    I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and 1984 when I was young.
    I tried to read Ulysses once and got about 80 pages into it before just tossing it aside. That stream of consciousness nonsense was unbearable.
    I did get through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which at least had some historical context and conspiracies to keep it interesting but was almost as ridiculous as Joyce.

  13. J.ScottShipman Says:

    This Churchill quote will be included in an upcoming post:

    “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.” Winston S. Churchill, Painting as a Pastime

    Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence and Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge stand out. I took on On War the way Lt Gen Van Riper suggested—used other writers to back into the work. (Gray, Houser, Strachan, and Sumida worked for me)
    Canetti is on the shelf, but I’ve not read it—like Lex has said, “I need to.” On Rand—her books simply don’t interest me. I’ve started Atlas several times and was bored stiff…

  14. Lexington Green Says:

    That quote from Churchill is excellent.

  15. Justin Boland Says:

    Last year I read Alfred McCoy’s “The Politics of Heroin,” which convinced me that the folks who recommended it to me hadn’t read it at all.

  16. zen Says:

    Ba ha ha ha ha! you might be right!

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