Ours is an age of intense anti-intellectualism--and at the same time, endless intellectual one-upsmanship, with seemingly everyone exaggerating their intellectual prowess. People lie about their grades, and the courses they took and finished, and the degrees they have. They lie about the range of their technical proficiency, and the number of languages they speak.1
And, as Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz so memorably sang, "They lie to feel important, about all the books that they've read." Not long ago, Michelle Kerns took on the issue over at the Examiner, presenting a list of "The Top 10 Books People Lie About Reading."
Some of the books that made the list are unsurprising, given how often they are name-dropped precisely because of their notorious length and difficulty--like the "loose baggy monster" that is Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, the Modernist behemoths Ulysses and In Remembrance of Things Past ("Has ANYONE actually read this, other than Proust?" Kerns asks), and of course, the Bible.
My guess about these books is that many perfectly intelligent people start these books really meaning to get through them, and then simply fail to persevere with them all the way to the end, especially when they are not obliged to read them for a course.2
Others, however, struck me as very surprising, not least George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes the number one spot on the list. Certainly it is, like the books previously mentioned, the sort of thing much more often cited than understood, but it's also short (three hundred pages or so in most editions), and it struck me as highly readable, so that I would have expected that, given how often it makes school reading lists, a much higher percentage of people would have actually got through it. Ditto Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which I found to be at the more accessible end of the pop cosmology spectrum.
What people are not reading thus established, what is it that they actually are reading instead? J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, it seems.
What can we take from these lists? I suppose that, while one can argue about the reasons for it, the fact remains that the relatively small number of people who make a habit of reading fiction have little patience for the difficulties presented by those books held in highest esteem by the makers of respectable opinion, or place quite so much stress on the more esoteric pleasures by which the critics set such great store (with even Orwell and Hawking perhaps sufficient to defeat many a worthy reader).
These lists also indicate that, despite the reality of the reading public's tastes, it faithfully pays tribute to what that they feel should define their standards as readers, or which they would at least like others to think define those standards. And that when the conversation turns highbrow, we are more likely to encounter pretension than substance--suggesting that not merely the image but the reality of our intellectual life has been corrupted by the outrageous exaggerations of semi-literate public figures passing themselves off as men and women of letters, the endless "selling of oneself" that grows out of the absorption of all of life by the marketplace, the spiraling insecurity that goes with ever-widening differences in status and anxieties about the same, and even the distortion of our ideals by the caricatures of intellectuality we get from pop culture.
None of these strikes me as a great revelation. But Kerns' post is still worthwhile as a more than anecdotal reminder that those things "which everyone is assumed to know . . . almost everyone does not know," with the contents of the Great Books no exception.
It is a reminder, too, that those who really do bother to read and to think for themselves, however much they may feel as if they fail to meet the standard of accomplishment set by Hollywood morons and other douchebags, have no real cause to feel insecure. Anyone who has bothered to read this post all the way through, and actually understood it, is likely far, far ahead of the pack.
1. Language fluency is an area where delusions and misapprehensions seem particularly commonplace, and oft-exposed. I have long been astonished by the fact that the entire British task force sent to the Falklands in 1982 contained only one fluent Spanish speaker. James Adams, Secret Armies: Inside the American, Soviet and European Special Forces (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), p. 192.
2. As Kerns notes in her 2009 posts, her lists are based on a poll in Britain, but it seems to me that most of what it says carries over to the U.S. fairly well.
My Posts on Anti-Intellectualism
The Twelfth Doctor Arrives
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Trailer and Story
Up From Development Hell: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
My Posts on Literature