Yesterday The Guardian reported on a survey of 2000 members of the British public about their reading of classic novels. Sixty percent admitted to lying about having read books they had not read “to appear more intelligent.” In addition,
”...more than half of those polled [admitted to] displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they'd rather not be seen reading in public.”
”...42 per cent of people rely[...] on film and TV adaptations, or summaries found online, to feign knowledge of the novels.”
It appears to me after ten years of feedback and conversation with readers of this blog, that many of us – probably a large majority – are regular book readers.
Maybe we have been so all our lives. Maybe reading became a lifelong habit because most of us grew up before television and certainly before the internet that take up so much time.
Or, maybe we have more time to read now that the kids are grown, many of us no longer work a full schedule and a lot of the responsibilities and obligations of midlife no longer apply.
With all that, the survey reported in these two feature stories left me wondering what our reading of classic novels is.
I can't recall that I've ever lied about having read something but maybe I'm wrong. Call me goody-two-shoes but in school, I never used Cliff Notes for reading assignments because – well, it was cheating and anyway, I have always liked to read.
However, there are plenty of books on my shelves that I haven't read or haven't finished reading but not to pretend to others that I've read them. These are books I might go back to some day. Or I might not but I don't consider shelving them a moral lapse.
The two newspapers published a list of the top ten books people surveyed claimed to have read but had not and it might be fun to see if we have read them. Here's the list with my comments in italic. I've read all but two and a third is – well, you'll see why my reading of it is iffy.
1984 by George Orwell (26%) I've read this three or four times most recently about six months ago.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%) One I've never finished. I've tried probably a dozen times and can't get past page 100. Yes, it still sits on my shelves and I'll probably give it another shot one day.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%) I've read it twice. Except for Tale of Two Cities which was required reading twice in my school years, I discovered Dickens late in life – my 30s – and was completely caught up in all his novels.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%) I have no idea how anyone interested in American culture could skip this.
A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%) I never even tried. Attempts to read other of Forster's work defeated me. I never could work up any interest in his writing.
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%) All right, this is a special case. Yes. I read it. Back in the 60s. I was stoned through the entire book so I have no idea what it's about. I don't think that qualifies as reading and I have not (yet) tried it again.
To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%) I keep going back to this book. I've lost count of the number of readings - it is a pleasure every time.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%) This was required in a high school class and I recall enjoying it. Not enough, I guess, to re-read it as an adult.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%) As with Dickens, I came to Austen late in life – way late, in my 50s – and thanks to a couple of Austen-fan friends, worked my way through the oeuvre. They were fine but not enough that I understand the devotion Austen engenders.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%) This was a favorite childhood book; I read it then several times.
There is nothing more recent on this list than mid-20th century but I think they still hold up as part of the canon a well-rounded person should read at some time in life.
What's your take on all this? (By the way, comments about The Guardian story on this survey had reached nearly 1200 in 24 hours. Apparently, it struck a chord.)