I stumbled across an interesting list this morning, of the Top 20 Books You Pretend to Have Read. There’s not a lot of analysis included, not much wondering why people might pretend to have read books – just the vague speculation that these are “the ones we keep thinking we’ll get to someday”. And I suppose it’s a difficult question to answer from survey data, and may involve a diverse and highly personal set of reasons, but I can’t help but think that pointing towards our own future intentions and hopes is missing the mark on most of them.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably part of it, since those expectations of ourselves have a lot to do with our perceptions of who it is we are, but I think there’s a gulf between saying “that’s on my list of things to read” and actually pretending to have read it. They’re both about construction of identity, using books as indexes of certain types of cultural capital. That makes it interesting to see the general patterns in what specific books are on there – some are highly literary and have a reputation for being difficult to understand (Ulysses, War and Peace), while others are markers of membership in certain subcultural groups or of familiarity with major ongoing trends in popular culture (LOTR, Harry Potter, this is my only possible explanation for Fifty Shades of Gray). It also makes it interesting to think about whether it would even be possible to write a similar list about other types of media or art – I could maybe imagine a list of movies we pretend to have seen, or music we pretend to know, but I think it’s a stretch to think there would be a list of TV shows we pretend to watch/have watched. I don’t think there’s cultural capital to be gained from pretending to know the stories of Walter White, Jimmy McNulty, or Peggy Olsen, even with the general expectation in some circles that you at least know who those people are. There’s also not much to be gained from suggesting you know who won the last season of American Idol or The Voice if you didn’t actually watch – and in fact, I may even go so far as to hypothesize that, ‘golden age’ or no, there are still a lot more people who lie about not watching TV (or specific shows, or genres) than there are that lie about watching it.
Which kind of brings out a part of my point – it’s a bit of sugar coating to talk about pretending, because what we’re doing is lying. Sure, it’s a lie that doesn’t really hurt anybody, and it could be argued that it doesn’t really matter, but then why tell the lie in the first place? I say that with a clear recollection of just how much work this particular type of lie can be, because it’s not just about saying “yes, I read that” and moving on with the conversation, but about performing the identity that is associated with being the kind of person who has read X.
In 1998, when I was 18 and first moved to my university town, the kind of person I wanted to be had read Lord of the Rings, even though I hadn’t. I connected with some great people who were totally the kind of people who had read Lord of the Rings, and we talked about the kinds of things that interested us. Sci-Fi and fantasy, comic books, mythology, deeply nerdy trivia, whatever. And Lord of the Rings. We talked a lot about that, especially as the information about the movies started emerging. This made my performance especially difficult, as I had to react to each piece of casting news or rumour about plot adaptation as though I understood what was happening. What? No Tom Bombadil? I have no idea who that is, but you all seem to think it’s a big deal, so I will too. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel? I could get through this conversation based on my clarification of the differences between Winslet and Blanchett, and yes, this is the regal, Elizabeth one, not the Titanic one.
Maybe the other people who fake their reading lists didn’t make quite the same investment, especially since some of the ones on that list may have been faked for the purposes of passing a high school course. Still, as someone who has put conscious effort into moving towards authenticity, this kind of harmless-but-meaningful pretending is an extremely interesting cultural pattern.