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How to Lie About What You've Read

1. Learn Names. Say you’re having dinner with your partner and their parents. Their mum mentions the book club she is a part of, how they’re reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and she asks if you’ve read it. You say you do, quickly, stupidly, before remembering that no, you only watched part of the TV adaptation on iPlayer years ago in a history class. She asks you point-blank what you thought of the novel. Knowing the names of the main characters comes in handy for two reasons. One is that when you’ve said one, you’ll find you can start to riff on any other proper nouns that might pop into your head: “Well of course there’s Henry VIII, and don’t get me started on Catherine of Aragon. I wish she’d written something about Shakespeare.” The other is that, most often, people stop listening to you once you’ve mentioned the big ones; it’s just small talk anyway. Your partner’s mum will nod approvingly. Her child is dating an intellectual.

2. Get the Gist. You have a tutorial coming up on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. You loved The Vampire Diaries as a teenager, and have heard it’s basically about the same thing, so you are excited. When you come to read it though, you discover how dated, wooden, and dull it is. Reading it all in time would require a supreme summoning of willpower you don’t have in you. Scouring the internet for a plot synopsis will help, but you have to know where to look. Wikipedia, SparkNotes, and CliffsNotes can work for a canonical text like Dracula, but their summaries are often either too truncated and vague, or impossibly long and over-detailed. The trick is to search the book up on Youtube and find a video review — really any video review. A Jack Edwards or a WithCindy might be your preference, but you would be surprised how succinct some retired librarian from the Midwest can be when given the opportunity.

3. Have a Hot Take. You’ve just moved into a new place, and are getting to know your flatmates. At one point, they are discussing Hanya Yanagihara’s controversial A Little Life. None of them liked it. You know you haven’t read it, but you have been meaning to read it. There are just so many books with so little time. It does, however, take less time to have an opinion, not least for a doorstop of a book like Yanagihara’s. Sourcing a professional review or two will help you work out how you would feel were you to have read it. Make sure though that the review is either strongly pro or anti; nuance will only invite further questioning. The right Twitter threads can also help turn fussy literary criticism into full-blown war. Call A Little Life the worst, most callous, and gratuitous book of all time. Watch as your flatmates ease up, knowing you all share common principles, and that on certain matters you are open and passionate.

4. Do a Year Abroad. You have just returned from some deep and mysterious corner of Western Europe. Your family would like to know the ways in which you have been culturally enriched. Luckily, due to their comparative ignorance, you can really list any author or title and wax lyrical about how the work changed you without getting caught. They’ve never heard of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings? Not a thing about Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre? What a relief; you can sing these books’ praises unfettered.

5. Give Up and Come Clean. You realise, halfway through a lie about having read 1984, that there has always been another option. Admitting to what we haven’t read, or only half-read, or know we should have read but haven’t, can free us and others from the kinds of shame that surround reading: the shame of not knowing enough, of having differing or alternative tastes, of finding reading difficult. We uphold the unfair societal expectation that we all have instant, fully-formed opinions on every piece of culture by denying our limitations. With ambivalence and honesty, we dismantle it.

Illustration by Bethany Morton

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