Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

[cross-posted from]

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?

34 thoughts on “Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So”

  1. 10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: Read it in high school. In college, I read the Greek philosophers, and I decided that she was blowing smoke.

    9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Read it in a course in College. I think it means rather less than the enthusiasts think.

    8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo: Never. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: In high school. I have read a lot of history since then. Later I began to appreciate that Sidney Carton was taking being a law firm associate to its logical conclusion.

    7. 1984, George Orwell: High School. Good lord. it is very short.

    6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Most of it. One time we listened to the a reading of the first volume when we were on a long road trip.

    5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: My great failure.

    4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: Three times. Most recently in 2002 after the lines from the first chapter were made accutely relevant:”

    It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this: “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States. “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.”

    3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Good lord. it takes maybe an hour to read.

    2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Read it a College political theory course. Joe Cropsey spent the first week on the introduction.

    1. Ulysses, James Joyce: Unreadable.

    Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — During the year I didn’t sleep, but I loved it.
    Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. No
    Clausewitz’s On War. Sorry.
    Aristotle’s The Politics. Actually it is an easy read.
    Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus three times. Thucydides only chapters.
    Hobbes’ Leviathan. Chapters
    Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. No, are you crazy?
    Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I have read the Brothers K and War and Peace.

    What I am sorry I haven’t read: Smith, Thucydides.

  2. The Wealth of Nations is actually five tomes. It’s certainly not a quick weekend read. And no, I have not read them all.

  3. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses are books that I was told I “should” read. I tried both and failed. Probably won’t go back for another try. I do read Moby Dick every few years (not sure why) but I really need to find some new stuff.

  4. I read Gravity’s Rainbow. When I first started it I was under the impression that it was going to be some kind of hip technical historical fiction. It was sort of that I guess.

    For anyone to say that you must read it or that it’s the greatest novel of the latter 20th century is silly. It’s a subversive, avant-garde stew of barely comprehensible esoterica with too many characters to keep track of, too many vertigo-inducing story lines, and a narrative style that moves in out and out of coherence. It got a big publicity surge from the author’s Salinger-esque reclusiveness, and it greatly benefited from positive reviews from the “Underground” Press, which was just taking over mainstream publications. Otherwise, I can’t believe it has much appeal to a wide audience.

  5. I’ve read 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8, but the only one I’ve read in the last ten years was Ulysses, mostly because I thought I should. As for the kindle, I would agree with you if I had good eyes, but at this point the large type is a godsend. The main drawback for serious books is that maps, photos, tables, and such are seldom displayed well, which is probably a problem with the publisher, and a large viewing surface is needed. Traditional books also have their problems, bindings tend to be cheap and the paper may yellow after a few years. I expect the problems with ebooks to be worked out eventually, and maybe someday one will also be able to scribble marginal notes.

    Now, what I really want to know is where the picture above came from and how the top shelves are accessed.

  6. Of these, I’ve only read 1984, The Prince, Moby Dick. Both Les Miserables and Ulysses I started numerous times, even dutifully seeking out an informal study group on Ulysses. After getting through the first hundred pages in a month, I decided I was too stupid to follow his language (true) or he was being unreasonable if he really expected us to know or care that much about his world (also, I suspect, true). I’ve filled my life with trivia, but this didn’t seem on a higher level than pulling up film noir or watching junk television.

    I’ve been sorting out books and putting them out for students to take as I clear my office. I suspect some of the most acclaimed 20th century fiction will be seem as large a wasteland as Victorian sentimentality – Pynchon, Barthelme, Carver aren’t the most opaque; I remember when we thought Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin were important.

    I have a related question: I don’t read deeply, but now prefer non-fiction – history, economics, politics (all fairly light, I’ll admit). Others, I find tougher going (Federalists, Tocqueville) but do feel they are worth my time and are interesting – if I could just concentrate. Before I was forty I seldom read anything but fiction – at one point I set out to read all of Henry James and came reasonably close. What I’d like to know is if our minds change in our forties (or fifties or sixties); perhaps this is a personal thing, but it seems curious. I loved narrative. My daughters differ from one another, though. And I suspect I watch more television for my “narrative fix” and for analysis, choose other forms.

    Some of this may be a gender split, too.

    Have any of you seen changes in the kind of works that attract a 20-year-old mind, 40-year-old or 60-year old? (My husband began his career working with non-fiction – Ruskin, Arnold, Mill, etc. But his last book was on the long narrative poem – an old-fashioned genre that few read anymore. I can’t get through Clarel – again, trying numerous times. But his students fill his Arthurian course that begins with medieval narratives and spends much time on Tennyson’s Idylls.)

  7. “Victorian sentimentality” — The Victorians were not as sentimental as their reputation suggests, or many of them were not. The memoir and travel writers are unsparingly tough minded.

    “Tennyson’s Idylls.” A truly beautiful work. I would love to read it all the way through with a group.

  8. spends much time on Tennyson’s Idylls

    I haven’t read much Tennyson, but I’ve been impressed by the poetry of what I have read. He had a real feel for language. I think he is underrated, mostly on account of changing fashion.

  9. I probably should have said the Americans – there is little sentimental, it seems to me, if domestic about George Eliot, Gaskell. Stowe can be sentimental and so can the “women scribblers” that showed up in feminist anthologies in the last few years – so I guess taste always changes. And heroes remain heroes, thank god.

  10. Ginny
    I have a related question: I don’t read deeply, but now prefer non-fiction—-Before I was forty I seldom read anything but fiction ….Some of this may be a gender split, too.

    What I have read about reading preferences of children says that nonfiction attracts more boys, and that fiction attracts more girls. Mind you, these are averages, not absolutes. I followed those trends as a child, as I read a lot of children’s versions of Roman history, in addition to fiction. It appears that part of the gender disparity in reading affinity and achievement, in elementary school at least, is a result of female teachers pushing only fiction, and not accommodating boys’ interests in nonfiction.

    I am less interested in fiction than I used to be. I especially like memoirs. I have recently read Eicher’s Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War; Haffner’s Defying Hitler- a book recommended in this blog, Djilas’s Conversations With Stalin [not as good as I anticipated, for he conversed with Stalin on only three occasions.]; and Sliding on the Snow Stone by Andy Szpuk. The latter is a memoir of the author’s father, who grew up in Ukraine during the Holodomor [Stalin’s induced famine] and ended up as a teenaged refugee in Germany- having walked from Ukraine.

    These reading choices also reflect my childhood. I am the product of a North South marriage, and I grew up with a lot of people who were either Iron Curtain refugees or if not refugees, had relatives behind the Iron Curtain.

  11. My pleasure reading changed a lot as I aged. I loved mysteries as a child, the Hardy Boys, for example. I then moved on to adventure like Robinson Crusoe and Tom Corbett Space Cadet (I’m serious!). Sometime around late adolescence I found Jules Verne and my goose was cooked. I devoured science fiction and some fantasy for years after that.

    In my thirties I developed a taste for history, then in my forties a taste for the various sciences. I read a lot of astronomy – a subject I’d always loved since I picked up a photo book of the Messier Objects when I was a child – and physics and geology.

    I still pick up fiction occasionally, but so much of it bores me now. Even a lot of non-fiction bores me, including the classics. I got through maybe half of The Origin of Species. I kept thinking, ‘OK, I got that, you don’t have to repeat the whole thesis yet again, and again, get on with it already!’ at which point I lose interest. I had the same experience with Wealth of Nations. It was interesting to a point, but maybe I’ve already gotten the lessons, and I couldn’t find anything new or insightful.

    Reading Herodotus is like reading a more prosaic version of the Greek Myths. Bored me to tears. All kings and wars and oracles and meaningful dreams. I’m sure there’s real history buried in there. Somewhere. I preferred the actual Greek Myths. They were generally a lot of fun.

    Some fiction writers I did read recently and thoroughly enjoyed are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

    I’ve only read a few biographies in my life, but two that I enjoyed were American Caesar and a fascinating book on Christopher Wren, the 17th century astronomer and later architect who designed many of the churches in London after the Great Fire. His masterpiece was St Paul’s Cathedral.

  12. When I was a child, I read a cousin’s “World History” textbook which read like a novel. I used to have it but it got lost somehow. I wish I could find it again. Again, when a child, I read Sherlock Holmes, Plato’s Symposium, and, in college, Grant’s Memoirs, JB Bury, “The History of Greece to the Death of Alexander,” Jackson’s “Shenandoah Valley Campaign,” and most of Bruce Catton. I was really on a Civil War kick as a college student.

    Since then, in non-medical topics, I read Thucydides several times. Lots of non-fiction of France and British history. I got Churchill’s Second World War as a bonus for joining the Book of the Month Club as a high school student and read them all multiple times. The Second World War list is too long.

    In novels I prefer WEB Griffin and Tom Clancy but also read Daniel Silva and a few western writers. I read most of Dickens years ago and have read several of Dumas’ novels multiple times. Another favorite in novels is Rafael Sabatini.

  13. “Tennyson’s Idylls.” A truly beautiful work. I would love to read it all the way through with a group.

    I only know Tennyson from Ulysses (the good Ulysses, that is), but I’m always up for a good read. How about a roundtable?

    The only thing I asked for Christmas this year is a new copy of the Lord of the Rings. Though it isn’t “hard”, its venerable themes and length do demand a commitment. I read them about ten or twelve years ago, and then about ten years before that, so I’m due for another reading. My old paperbacks have traveled with me for a long time and served me well, but it would be nice to get some new books.

    I didn’t see the Hobbit movies, mostly because I was less than impressed with the LOTR movies. However, all the publicity has got me wanting to return to the books.

  14. How many of your readers have read MOBY-DICK (1851) all the way through? Besides being a great, usually misunderstood book, it was co-opted by liberals and communists after 1919, and twisted beyond recognition. See my article But then the canon wars, controlled by liberals and New Leftists, consigned him and his book to relative oblivion. But the book and its chief hero/villain (Captain Ahab) are familiar figures to the great unwashed.

  15. A roundtable to read the Idylls of the King

    That would be a divergence from the usual fare around here.

    Not ruling it out, though.

  16. My claim to reading ‘hard’ books is based on having read ‘War and Peace’ from cover to cover. In high school. Of my own free will. I was intrigued by having seen the epic Russian movie of it – can’t remember now how I did – maybe it was on broadcast TV sometime in the early 1970s? Anyway, I liked it very much. The key is to skim the philosophical parts – get back to the family epic as soon as possible.
    I also read and liked Spenser’s Fairy Queen, and page after page of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

  17. “I also read and liked Spenser’s Fairy Queen”

    My English professor told us that he took a long sea voyage on a small freighter with only Spencer’s book to read. It was the only way he could get through it. I have read parts of it but most for assignments. I did have a set of books as a child that had abridged versions of some of these things.

  18. As previously stated, I’ve read Moby Dick through a number of times. The book has significance as it’s based in my old hometown, I was married in the church mentioned in the book, and sailed out of the port. I preferred Typee and Oomo though. I threw in the towel after reading White Jacket and then Redburn. I prefer Conrad or Slocum…

  19. It’s been over 40 years since I read it, but did a term paper on Pierre. That was really crazy. Your bio is interesting. for a long time Billy Budd has been a favorite and I reread it every semester for a while and found more in it every time. Savoring the words is possible when they are great and it’s only 90 pages or so. Melville in BB and Conrad in Heart of Darkness seem to have taken the great questions, humam psychology and then pruned them down so every thing reverberates.

  20. It was the only way he could get through it.

    And then there was the kid in kindergarten who, when asked to recite a poem, began to recite The Faerie Queene.

  21. “when asked to recite a poem, began to recite The Faerie Queene.”

    How many days to finish ?

    I reread Dumas books every few years. He had an amazing life. Conrad’s novels are marvelous, especially when you learn he wrote them in Polish and translated them to English.

  22. Gibbon’s first volume (of 4) is one I return every few years. His dry humor slays me and he is politically insightful.

    The Federalist Papers I’ve found to be an easy read once you get the cadences. I love the tightly reasoned persuasiveness. Not always correct, of course, but still brilliant.

    An abridged “Atlas Shrugged” could be interesting. I gave up half way through the full version.

    One can browse Spengler for fun.

    I’ll never read 1984 again – too damn depressing. Animal Farm makes many of the same points and is more fun.

    Read all 5 volumes of Churchill’s WWII saga. Great examples of effective memo writing one can model. A similar work is Shelby Steele’s three volumes on the Civil War. After Cold Harbor, one is sick of the killing. When will it end, dear God?

    Poor choices of required novels in high school put me off novels. Dickens just doesn’t connect with me. I still go back and re-read Heinlein’s juveniles with great pleasure.

    Biographies are a genre I wish I had discovered as a teenager but I only came to them in later years.

  23. “Required novels in high school”

    When I was a freshman in high school, we were to read “a book”. My teacher was young, alluring and “very cool” She took me aside and held up a book titled “The Strawberry Statement” and with a twinkle in her eye said “you, need to read this”. I did. In retrospect, I wished I had read Steinbeck, or one of the other books off that shelf, I really do.

  24. Whaitehall: “The Federalist Papers I’ve found to be an easy read once you get the cadences.”

    I started to read them all the way through, but I quit in the 70s. They were not originally written as a book. They were newspaper articles to start with, so each of them is freestanding.

    If you like 18th Century prose, then you should read Gibbon. To my mind, Decline and Fall is the greatest non-fiction prose work in English.

  25. Will

    When I was a freshman in high school, we were to read “a book”. My teacher was young, alluring and “very cool” She took me aside and held up a book titled “The Strawberry Statement” and with a twinkle in her eye said “you, need to read this”. I did. In retrospect, I wished I had read Steinbeck, or one of the other books off that shelf, I really do.

    That book, like The Greening of America, would today be read for historical interest,as a reflection of an era, not for any literary interest. “Yeah, aren’t we cool” usually doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

  26. Let me recommend “Homage to Catalonia”, Orwell’s memoirs of the Spanish civil war. He recounts, in a very plain, workmanlike, piece of writing, his experiences during that war. Especially telling is the perspective he gains on the various leftist organizations he comes into contact with. Although I’m not sure of his outlook before this time I believe that he emerged from the experience disillusioned, disgusted, and feeling fortunate to have gotten away.

  27. Gravity’s Rainbow. Right up there with Naked Lunch, according to literary geniuses at Time. You’ll learn more about cricket from P.G. Wodehouse than you ever will of rocket science from Pynchon or drug addled perversity from Burroughs. Gah.

  28. I went and looked up Gravity’s Rainbow on Wikipedia. Gah.
    I have a reason for avoiding modern lit, having been scarred for life by a college class in the modern novel. I will never forget Lowry’s Under The Volcano, although I’ve been trying to for years.

  29. One of the less happy semester’s I spent in grad school was with Naked Lunch – approaching in terms of various critical systems, choosing one approach as our final topic. The teacher was already on my committee, which made it more delightful.

    Bellefontaine (the Saint Louis park/cemetery) where grandfather William Burroughs & his grandson are buried was yesterday’s tourist moment. It did give pause: the inventions of the grandfather made many number crunchers’ lives easier; his grandson lived on the money & made many a lit student miserable. Fortunately my grandsons were too young to ask what made him famous? That book? Shooting his wife?

  30. Kerouac made him famous by writing him into ‘On The Road’. Just one more sideshow degenerate to call on during the nonstop roadtrip. It certainly wasn’t the sick unreadable tripe he wrote.

  31. Respectfully disagree about Kerouac.

    On the Road is a love letter to freedom and to America.

    Kerouac was not a Leftist. He was an untheoretical, anarchic individualist. He was not an anti-traditionalist, even.

  32. I agree with you about Kerouac. I’m a big fan of his but not so much his peers.
    I was actually referring to William S. Burroughs as unreadable tripe. He was the character Old Bull Lee.
    He was a sick person who mostly became famous because he miraculously outlived everyone else.

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