05 March 2009

Today is World Book Day and I'm Not Lying About That

In the news: “Most Britons have lied about the books they’ve read.”

Now, you could let that statement “lie” there and die a genteel death. Or you could ponder the implications.

The news report is more about what people say about books than the books themselves. It hit a nerve worldwide, at least in the English-speaking world, which is the only world I can read well. The story was reprinted in dozens of locations, including the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Scotsman, the BBC, even by Stuff, which calls itself “New Zealand’s leading news, sport and entertainment website.”

The news that a majority of Britons will lie about what they read resulted from an online survey in conjunction with World Book Day, asking online readers if they have ever told someone they had read a book when they had not. About two-thirds admitted lying from time to time.

If you’d like to test yourself, and your honesty about your reading, here are the ten titles in the survey, ranked from most lied about to least lied about. How many of these do you SAY you’ve read?

1. 1984 - George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses - James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past - Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins (6%)

Forty-two per cent of the surveyed readers admitted they said they had read “1984" when in fact they had not. One third lied about “War and Peace” down to only six per cent who lied about “The Selfish Gene.” Maybe the selfish gene controls an honesty switch in the cerebral cortex. Maybe the book is hard to lie about because scientific-minded readers know when you’re faking it.

The survey was conducted online in January and February, and there were 1342 responses. A spokesman for Britain’s National Literacy Trust concluded that people avoid the truth sometimes in order to seem more intelligent to potential mates.

“Research that we have done suggests that the reason people lied was to make themselves appear more sexually attractive," he said. "People like to be seen to be readers. It makes them look good. They said they were prepared to lie about what they'd read to impress people, particularly when it came to potential partners."

Recently on Facebook, a friend of mine, a real friend, not just a Facebook friend, asked people to take a different quiz first devised by the BBC. She posted a list of 100 famous and popular books and asked her friends to indicate how many we’ve all read.

Her personal count of books consumed was a whopping 58 out of 100, a staggeringly high number. After that other survey, the one where people lied about what they’d read, it’s difficult to take her results at face value. But I do. She’s my friend.

She noted that many of her personal “greats” weren’t even on the list, which would of course have made her score even higher. The BBC’s list of 100 books includes “Pride & Prejudice,” and “The Lord of the Rings” as well as “Catch 22" “The Da Vinci Code” and “Hamlet.”

Other friends chalked scores ranging from a low of 32 up to a respectable 54. I was the friend who scored the unimpressive 32. Am I less well read, than everyone else (answer: yes) or more honest? It’s a difficult question to ask, and impossible to know for sure.

I will return to that list and try to figure out if I lied anywhere. Did I really read “Catch-22" or only see the movie? No, it was assigned in school, so I must have read it. On the other hand “The Wind in the Willows” was read TO me. Does that count?

Such surveys of course are fairly silly. But it’s fascinating to know what others like to read, or say they have read, or indeed have lied about reading.

Maybe once you told a potential mate you knew Tolstoy. She assumed you had read Tolstoy, maybe “War & Peace,” twice. All you meant was you knew Tolstoy, as in you’d heard of him somewhere. I hope the two of you are happy.


“Stuff” on lying about books

The BBC 100

And they’ve ALWAYS lied...


Susan said...

"Out of curiosity, I went to those hundred books and I've actually read 51 of them; don't ask whether I remember the content of all of the books I've read however. It did strike me that there were a surprising number of Terry Pratchett titles--I haven't read any of Terry Pratchett (that I recall). As to the 10 you've listed in your "column," alas, only 4. Fun observations. In passing, I don't recall that in my youth, seeming smarter to attract a mate, at least for women, was encouraged...."

Susan said...

Re the March 12 column, Paul's comments kept reminding me of something... and then I realized it sounded like some of the comments I've been hearing from financial players of late. Direct me to the bookseller who doesn't have ANY crap in the store--that would be an amazing feat! My bookseller admits when he hasn't read a book, at least to me, but tells me the buzz or feedback he's had on it, if there's been any. Finally, a customer who expects a bookseller to have read everything is probably someone who doesn't read and is buying for someone else, yes?

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