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.


4 thoughts on “Pretending”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, in that people lie about reading books (or ‘pretend to have read them’, if people like that euphemism better) in order to fit into a particular group. Most often (in the case of the “classics”), the group is “intelligent, well-read people”. And your comparison to TV shows is interesting…in that those are often lied about in order to NOT be placed into a particular group (the most common group being “dumb, superficial people”).

    Basically, there’s something in the American psyche that says that smart people read books (especially certain kinds of books) and dumb people watch TV (especially certain kinds of TV). And people don’t like to be pigeonholed…or at least, they want to be placed into the more desirable hole. So they lie. And yeah…I don’t think they put very much investment in this lie, which is probably why they don’t feel it’s ‘lying’, necessarily. They probably don’t make these pretenses to people who actually like to discuss Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; they make them to people at parties who will make impressed noises and think they are smarter than they probably are.

    So I think at core, the motivation is self-image, and what image they want to present to others. And I find it hilarious that even though most Americans have this recognition that books = smart and TV = dumb (I realize this is not 100% reality, but it’s the perception)…there are still a ton of people who practically don’t read at all, and ‘reality TV’ is immensely popular.

    I like to own my weirdness, but I admit I am not always up front about what kind of media I partake of (books, TV, movies, etc)….but my obfuscation only extends to not telling everyone I meet “Oh man, I love Adventure Time!” (although actually, I do tell most people that…it’s an awesome show!). 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever lied about reading a book. I read enough that a lot of times, I don’t really need to; but I feel no shame in admitting I haven’t read 13 of the 20 books on that list, most of them considered “great classics”. I read a lot of classics in school…some were good, many were less so. I found everything I read by James Joyce to be a tremendous bore, so I never read Ulysses. I tried to read Moby Dick, but couldn’t get through it. I read Great Expectations in high school, but please don’t ask me to give you a plot summary…I’ve forgotten most of it (even the name of that really amusing character, the one with the ‘aged parent’). A lot of the rest (War & Peace, Austen and Bronte, etc) just aren’t my thing. And we won’t speak of the 50 Shades books. 🙂

    I guess while I can understand wanting to hide being a nerd, I can’t understand wanting to pretend to be pretentious.

    (and I am shocked, SHOCKED, to hear that you lied about reading LotR! Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow, etc). 🙂

    1. You have to admit, if I’m lying about something, at least it’s a quality lie. Also, I was young and extremely stupid.

      I have actually tried to move away from the whole idea that consuming X kind of media (most notably reality tv) makes you stupid, because there are lots of reasons one might actually enjoy different forms of entertainment, and I think there’s value in de-guiltifying my guilty pleasures. Mostly as part of accepting who I am rather than trying to construct an image of who I think I should be.

      It’s a pithy little list, but it really does make me think spiritual thoughts.

  2. “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. ” Way to call out the euphemism! I think of pretending is generally done with other people’s knowledge or at only temporary deception – like acting or cosplay or Just for Laughs Gags. “Pretending” about yourself to everyone around you – euphemism!

    1. Good distinction about “pretending” as being participatory. The anthropologist in me is inclined toward “performing” for the type of “lying” described here, but even that isn’t quite accurate. Performing (in the anthro sense) is true, it’s just selective in its contexts of applications, so you highlight different parts of your identity in different ways among different crowds for different purposes. This is an interesting one to me, because nope, just lying.

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