One test of character is whether or not, if you’re asked about a book, you pretend to have read it if you’ve only read the review. Do you claim familiarity with Donna Tartt’s new sensation, “The Goldfinch,” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a classic you know you should have studied? How about some trendy nonfiction, like “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by comedian Mindy Kaling, or something impressive about economics, like Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”?
When some books come out, it seems everyone is talking about them. Tartt’s latest novel qualifies as sensational on several counts: it was published ten years after her last one; initial reports were that it was fabulous; critics later called into question whether it was really a book for a young adult audience. Tartt won a Pulitzer before the media storm blew up questioning its quality. Maybe the prize contributed to the storm.
If you want to pretend you’ve read that one, you can check out the reader reviews on Amazon. At last count, there were 14,330, or almost twenty for every page of text. When a fellow writer pointed this number out to me, I wondered aloud if any of those “reviewers” had actually finished the book. Maybe they put it down before page 500. (Pair it with Picketty’s book, which clocks in at just under 700 pages, and the appeal of reading only reviews, even the page-long reviews in the more literate magazines and newspapers, becomes even greater.)
Let me hasten to admit that I have not read Tartt’s new book. I have not even purchased it. As you know, it’s often a challenge for me to read, because it sets off my headaches. I have experimented with audiobooks, with mixed results. This is one I won’t be ordering from Audible, though, given that its running time exceeds 32 hours. Since I usually listen to books and podcasts during my daily thirty minutes on the treadmill, it would take me over two months to get through it. I’m sure I could read it twice as fast even with sunglasses on.
But do I want to? I’ve read the reviews, after all. I’ve read the big, front-page review in the New York Times Book Review, which is part of the hefty paper I find on my doorstep every Sunday. I’ve also read the review in a half-dozen other magazines. When a new book by an already-popular author hits the stands, every pundit weighs in, and when it later comes out in paperback, they often do so again. Some of my favorite public radio programs – “Fresh Air,” “The Bob Edwards Show” – regularly rely on either reviews of books or interviews with their authors. Even in this time of a supposed decline in reading, a lot of people sure are talking about them.
But back to the original question. If someone asks if you’ve read something, whether low brow (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) or high (“Moby Dick”), do you ever pretend to know it well even if you’ve only 1) read a few reviews, 2) heard other people talk about it, and/or 3) examined it closely at Target?
Or, worse yet, do you say you’ve read a book if what you’ve actually done is see the movie adaptation? That can get you into trouble, as the author usually cedes complete control over whatever it is she wrote once it’s acquired by a producer. Just go and see “The Giver” – or, if you loved the story, don’t. You’ll just end up making a fool of yourself if you say you’ve read it but haven’t. For one thing, it’s not one book, it’s four; for another, there’s a love story in the movie that does not exist anywhere in the books. Take it from me, even though – okay, I admit it – I have not seen the movie, have only read and heard the disappointed reviews. I don’t know if I want to, though I’ve heard Jeff Bridges is just as good as I’d hoped. I loved those books, adored that story, and raced through it to find out how it would be resolved.
I’m a reader – heck, I have two degrees in English – and if that didn’t kill my joy in reading, nothing will. But even if I could read as much as I used to, with no head pain at all, I know I wouldn’t read everything out there, not even all of the books highly recommended by the editors of the New York Times. I’ve seen the t-shirt – “So Many Books, So Little Time” – and I agree, but there are limits. At our house, we subscribe to so many magazines containing at least a few book reviews, I don’t even have time to read those.
One thing I’m thankful for, as the pools close and the kids head back to school, is the dying off of the fevered SUMMER READING lists that turn up every year in every periodical I read. I have never understood the point of these, not for people over the age of seventeen. If you’re a kid, you get sprung from school, and lucky you, you can read. But for us working adults, where exactly is this extra reading time?
I’ll keep reading reviews, so I can at least nod knowingly as a friend sings the praises of this book or that, but I’ll be honest. The way I see it, it’s sort of like reading a restaurant review and pretending to know how good the food is there. Let’s face it. Pretending a review is as good as a book can leave you awfully hungry.