On pretending to have read books

It is an art in itself

Artillery Row

“I am writing a book,” says the man at the drinks party, in the old Peter Cook cartoon. “Neither am I,” replies his companion. 

Still makes me laugh. But would now work with “I am reading a book”, too. 

We have always been prone to exaggerate our capacity for books, but talking about specific books one has not read — let alone basing entire stand-up sets on them — used to be frowned upon. It sat somewhere between the spivviness of gate-crashing a private function and the cringe of having a scale replica of Michelangelo’s David on the mantelpiece. 

But it was also as easily remedied, should one wish. There were a few classics one needed to be acquainted with — Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, perhaps Mme Bovary to show willing — and only three or four new books a year of importance — Bonfire of the Vanities, Wild Swans, perhaps a reissue of Absolute Beginners

Now, over ten trillion new titles hit the shelves every month in Young Adult fiction alone. With genres such as “speculative fiction” that used to be for comics and cranks now taken seriously, and made-up genres like psycho-geography and ethnography sprouting all the time, not to mention the world’s back catalogue being available on one’s phone (and of course on-line titles like The Critic spewing essential verbiage like a broken main into the thoroughfare of discourse 24 hours a day), it is quite impossible to keep up or even to tread water. 

As the world divides ever more decisively into the long-form literate and the snapshot social-mediated, maintaining well-articulated and informed opinions becomes ever more demanding on our time.

 “The larger the island of knowledge,” goes the old Reader’s Digest phrase, “the longer the shoreline of wonder.” I used to find that thought reassuring, even awe-inspiring. It is now absolutely terrifying. That’s before you factor in the fractal nature of the coastline. When you get there, there is no “there”.

The Mariko Aoki phenomenon describes the sudden need to evacuate one’s bowels on entering a book shop. The diagnosis focuses on posited aromatic chemicals in ink or the ominous quiet that predominates and subconsciously reminds us of exam halls. But in my case at least, it is perfectly conscious. It is the unwelcome reminder that our literary to-do list grows ever longer as our mortal span contracts.

And so (sorry, Orwell, but my guilt is too great to avoid the passive voice) certain strategies have evolved. A certain fuzziness now surrounds the question of our relationship with a given book. Some, we’ve read. Others are more “browsed with benefits” or “it’s complicated”. A wink, evasion and fudge. 

I earnestly endorse quotation anthologies

We — okay, I — have quietly developed a very much more relaxed attitude to what we mean by “to read” or as is the preferred and more inclusive term, “to know”, a book. 

Now, as a life-long pseud, I learned years ago how to float in an implied familiarity with an author or their work, without telling an outright lie. I have a shell like a Galapagos Tortoise when challenged on this sort of thing. But I have noticed that such libertine manners are fast becoming normalised. 

When I mentioned the theme of this piece, for instance, my daughter immediately and shamelessly confessed to having recently completed an English essay on a text that she hadn’t even opened, based purely on the class discussion that she had attended on the first day back after a week off with Covid. She got, it seems, 39/40. I affected to look disapproving but this, I venture, may well prove a more valuable skill set than the one ostensibly being tested. We are after all a mimetic species. 

You don’t have to go fully commando, of course. There are plenty of briefs available. Students have long speculated whether the York Notes couldn’t tell them all there was to know about Crime and Punishment. Nowadays even that level of investment, financial and temporal, is unnecessary. Just as Tabata training promises 80 per cent of the benefits of full gym membership with five minutes of burpees a week, so 80 per cent of a new text can be more than adequately triangulated by certain oblique strategies. 

If you are going on to a TV discussion panel, then three professional reviews are required. One from The Critic (obvs); one from say, the LRB or Prospect, just so you know what Lefty nonsense someone is likely to spout; and a third, ideally right wing and American, to loosen the jaw again. 

Pair this with the first twenty pages of the book itself, downloaded as a free Kindle “sample”, to familiarise oneself with the author’s stated intentions and stylistic irregularities and you are in a better place to discuss it than some poor sap who has merely read the thing itself and has only their own uncredentialed opinions to fall back on. 

For most occasions, an even more efficient approach is to cull an understanding of the work from its Amazon reviews. 

There are thousands of these of course, but Amazon has helpfully started the winnowing for you by allowing people to vote on the reviews themselves. An up-vote of this sort is a good deal rarer than five star ratings for the book. It indicates an insightful, often amusing and pithy contribution — certainly pithier than the books that now emerge from the industrial bread-making approach taken by modern publishing, to get a decent magazine article up to 100,000 words.

Once you’ve read the “Helpful” reviews, if you want to be really bulletproof, scan the three- and four-stars too. Five-stars are invariably gushing, over-zealous — grade inflation is a plague on our world — and one-stars must surely be soured by something extraneous to the text: toothache, a messy divorce, an unpublished manuscript on the subject in their own bottom drawer. Two-stars, meanwhile, just don’t convince — why would anyone feel motivated to express such a thoroughly “meh” assessment at all? 

The midfield generals are where the sober judgement is to be found. 

As a longer-term reading project I earnestly endorse quotation anthologies. Despite the suspicions of dullards and literalists, the decontextualized bon mot is all the more piquant and potent when freed from its roots, unearthed from the dead matter in which it flowered. 

The first one I ever bought was the Penguin, I think, but at any rate, I remember that on the cover was one of Emerson’s — “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” However ironically that was intended, it is perhaps the least trenchant remark I have ever seen attributed to the great man. Besides, if it weren’t for quotation books I doubt many of us would know Ralph Waldo from Fitipaldi, Almieri dos Santos or Keith. 

Books are as dead as theatre was fifty years ago

Many of my favourite writers — Chesterton, Mencken, Johnson (S, but give B time) — are best enjoyed in this form. This is not “not” reading. But it is wearing a buttonhole instead of boring your guests with a tour of the whole garden, cucumber frames and all. I consider it an act of generosity, frankly. 

Don’t feel ashamed. The sad truth is that we are becoming an illiterate society. As a pastime, books are as dead as theatre was fifty years ago. What little reading we do now is rarely in longer form than you are currently struggling through — I wonder if you have already scrolled down to see how much more of this you need endure? Even when we do buy an actual book, the data is in on our chance of finishing it, and it’s not pretty. 

Books continue to flourish as a commodity, but to other purposes: as vectors of conversation, signalling and setters of agenda. Don’t worry about cheating the author of their impact. Writing a book is mainly about conferring a degree of status on the author, getting her invited to literary festivals and onto Front Row. Hearing it talked about is all that matters. 

None of this stops me from actually buying books, anyway. My physical bookshelves are double stacked, with a row of books who once had the shelves to themselves, now entirely obscured by new arrivals, like an unwelcome development spoiling their view. A sort of three-dimensional version of the “palimpsest” that is well known to anyone who pretended to have read The Name of the Rose before seeing the movie adaptation. 

Meanwhile, I have some 2500 books in my kindle library, the vast majority unread. My Kindle library, incidentally, can be arranged in order of purchases. These are the first six: 

Tellingly the first download was The Complete Works of Shakespeare — the next, one of the original bluffer’s guides, by Charles Lamb. His abridgments were good enough for James Joyce, who based Ulysses on Lamb’s filleting of Homer. Would the masterpiece of modernism have been any better, more highly esteemed — or more readable — if he’d actually read The Odyssey first, instead of just getting the gist? I doubt it. 

If it’s good enough for Joyce, it’s good enough for me. All being well, I hope this August to perform a new show at the Edinburgh Fringe called Simon Evans and his Big Ideas. The show is partly premised on a 1946 book called Ideas Have Consequences written by a Southern intellectual conservative called Richard Weaver. A book which — to finally arrive at the point — I have not read.

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