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Why we shouldn't be ashamed of literary lying

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Go on. Confess. What’s your dirty little literary secret? Proust, Joyce, Dickens, Flaubert…? Which big bad beast of a book have you talked about at dinner parties without having read so much as the inside jacket flap?

According to a new survey, among the most fibbed about works of fiction are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and George Orwell’s 1984. Almost 40 per cent of literary liars said they had dissembled on Dostoyevsky and told whoppers about Woolf simply to join in a conversation, while 30 per cent admitted it was to seem more intelligent. Just under 20 per cent drew on memories of television or film adaptations, and a desperate 5 per cent had feigned a coughing fit or changed the subject. When pressed, some said they had fallen back on the excuse: “But I read it ages ago. All a bit of a blur now.” One in 10 readers had posted pictures of (unread) books on social media. The frauds.

Time to come clean. Never have I ever read: Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, The Count of Monte Cristo, Tristram Shandy… I could go on. Whole shelves, whole libraries of titles never read, half-read, abandoned, dropped down the dust-trap between headboard and bedside table.

In some ways I’m more ashamed of the less literary books I’ve never read. Somehow I’ve managed to get to my early thirties without ever having read Jilly Cooper. When I posted this sad gap in my education on Instagram I had dozens of replies. “My absolute FAVEST EVER,” replied one friend. “So much fun and filth!” replied another, recommending Riders. “Just skim the horsey bits and plough through the muck.” You don’t get that sort of response for Proust.

Walking past the windows of Waterstone’s last week I looked gloomily at display copies of The Secret Commonwealth, the second in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy. I’m already a trilogy behind. I took against Northern Lights as a child and never got onto The Subtle Knife or The Amber Spyglass. When my entire generation settled down with La Belle Sauvage last year, nostalgically swapping notes on what sort of animal they’d have as their daemon, I felt powerfully left out. The nice thing about not having read, say, The Tale of Genji, is that no one else has read it either. Anyone who says they have is telling paperback porkies.

The list grows ever longer. Everyone’s talking about: Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House… I still haven’t read Moll Flanders and that was published in 1722. There’s a lot to leaf through before I start on the present bestsellers.

No one lies about not having watched the latest box set. We don’t mumble our shame round the water-cooler because we’ve never seen State of the Union or Mindhunter. Yet, we’ll Pinocchio our way through a book chat for fear of being the philistine who’s never read Wuthering Heights. Why pretend? I’ve never read so much as a page of Balzac, Sartre, Maupassant, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville or Boris Pasternak. But I have read the complete works of Terry Pratchett, Harry Potter, Nigel Molesworth and Messers Asterix and Obelix. Reading time well, and proudly, spent.

 

Laura Freeman is author of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite