Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ten Books People Lie About Reading

A piece by Ben Domenech at The Federalist discusses ten books that people often claim to have read but haven't. I don't know how Domenech arrived at this list, but here it is anyway for your perusal. The comments on the books are his. How many of them have you read? Tell the truth, now.

Here's Domenech:
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)....

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.

5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.

4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”

3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.

2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.

1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.
There are three books on Domenech's list I haven't read, and, I'm not ashamed to say, I plan on never reading. If you're curious they're #5, #3, and #1.

I'll never read Wealth of Nations because it's eye-glazingly laborious. I won't read Art of War because I'm not sufficiently interested in the topic, and I won't read Ulysses because, well, I'm not sure why anyone has read Ulysses.

Of the books on the list that I have read, I especially recommend both of the selections at #8, as well as #7, and #6, but all of them would repay the time and effort it takes to read them (except for maybe Origin of Species which in my opinion requires a special interest in biology to appreciate). My personal favorite on the list, and in my top two or three all-time favorite books, is Hugo's Les Miserables which is a work of sheer genius.

If now you're curious about what my very favorite all-time novel is it's Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov which is also a work of genius.