Thursday, January 15, 2009

Everything you pretend to know is a lie

I will respond to my co-blogger’s slanderous opinion of “Oscar Wao” in due time. For now, I want to talk about a subject that is close to my heart: lying.

Everyone lies about books.

Everybody pretends to have read something they haven’t. We do it for a lot of reasons. No, wait, no we don’t. We only do it for one reason. We don’t want other people to think they are smarter than us.

Be honest. If your smarmy coworker asks you what you thought of Dave Eggers’ new book, do you say:

(A.) Oh, I haven’t read it yet. You must be my intellectual superior because you have. Feel free to bring that up whenever I try to make a cogent criticism of your work.

(B.) It was all right, but I don’t think he’ll ever top “A Heartbreaking Work.”

It’s a formal nicety. Your coworker probably gleaned all of his knowledge of James Fenimore Cooper from watching “Last of the Mohicans” on TBS, but he’ll still spend his coffee break discussing Cooper’s representation of Native Americans.

Book bluffs are simple maneuvers. They mix vague opinions and undetectable lies into an impermeable shield. For the rookies, here are some simple pieces of advice when lying to your literary frenemy.

1. Defer the subject to something else you have read.

A coworker may ask you about “Finnegan’s Wake.” This is a trap. No person in the history of the universe has ever read “Finnegan’s Wake.” In fact, James Joyce didn’t finish it. Its last 100 pages are blank, but nobody’s read far enough to notice yet. When your coworker asks what you thought of “Finnegan’s Wake,” simply say you liked it less than “Dubliners” or “Portrait of the Artist.” Then, start talking about either of them instead.

Warning: This strategy is less effective if you haven’t read “Dubliners” either.

2. Give a vague opinion.

No one will ever question a vague, middling opinion, as demonstrated by my Eggers’ example. If someone asks you about a book you haven’t read, shrug and say, “It was OK, not their best work.”

If you compliment the book too much, the person will ask what you liked about it. Similarly, they may ask what your objection is if you trash it. Keep it middle of the road and they can’t question you.

(If Mr. Know-It-All persists, tell him that all opinions are subjective and, thus, valid.)

3. The University Maneuver

If someone asks you about some classic, just reply, “I haven’t read that since college. I hardly remember it.”

If you’re feeling especially saucy say, “Oh, you’re just getting to that now. I read that as a freshman.”

Warning: Do not attempt the University Maneuver with any books that have been released since you graduated. You will only make yourself look stupid.

4. Watch the movie.

Most books have been turned into movies. (I learned this when I got lost in a Blockbuster while trying to find Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze.) Don’t feel like reading “Sense and Sensibility,” rent the movie. The same works for “Pride and Prejudice,” “Wuthering Heights,” or pretty much anything by Mark Twain.

If you can’t find a movie, don’t panic, there’s normally a BBC miniseries available on Netflix.

Warning: Doublecheck the movie’s fidelity to the source material before discussing the book. Otherwise, you'll find yourself saying, “I loved how ‘The Scarlet Letter’ took a serious issue and turned it into a carefree sex romp.”

These four tips should get you through any literary discussion with a know-it-all coworker. When in doubt, mention “Finnegan’s Wake.” It’s a guaranteed endgame maneuver… unless they counter with Tolstoy in the original Russian.

--Jason Lea,

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Blogger Harold said...

While this is mildly entertaining, it is unfortunate that people must lie about books they've read.

Not everybody does, but what about reading makes us feel guilty for not having done it?

January 15, 2009 at 10:05 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admit I shockingly enjoy the back-and-forth banter of the new NH blogs. Good work NH....

However, Jason, the fact that you expertly know how to lie about books is very telling, and makes me question how you justify blogging about the topic. First an attack on Dickens and now this? Are you next going to tell me that John Grisham is one of the nation's great writers?

January 15, 2009 at 10:42 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why you would start a blog post about lying about what you read in the first place.
Unless you feel it's a way to compensate for something else. You know, there are American males that buy expensive sports cars to compensate for other weaknesses. In this case, it's reading (or not reading) particular literature that your average American hasn't since high school or college.

If not the classics, then obscure novels from semi-well-known authors that require footnotes to add to the discussion. These posts lend themselves to an air of academic or cultural arrogance on the part of this Jason Lea.

Most Americans, in these trying times, aren't reading books anyway. Things like getting food on the table, finding jobs, and not getting laid off are a bit more important. Not this intellectual fantasy about how to pretend like you're smarter than everyone else by lying about what you've read.

What's the end game in lying about what you've read? You can fool some people, but eventually someone--academic or not--will catch on and leave you with cake on your face. Lying doesn't pay.

If you ever did this, even for fun, then even your newswriting should be scrutinized for factual accuracy. Having a blog post about something that could ethically affect your job as a writer is not a smart call.

It ranks up there with Phil Savage sending the hateful e-mail to the Browns fan this season. Don't disgrace your reputation by lying about what you read, Lea.

January 15, 2009 at 2:34 PM 
Blogger Kyle said...

He has a reputation to disgrace?????

Now John Grisham, HE has a reputation that I will not let be disgraced. Think about how many millions of people have been entertained by his books...that were made into movies. He's the modern day Twain

January 15, 2009 at 3:33 PM 
Blogger Earl said...


A very wise, very talented man once said of honesty:

"There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth.”

One would hope that you, whose responsibility is to honestly report the news, would be a pursuer and teller of truths, not one who boasts of his ability to decieve.

The very wise, very talented man whose quote is above, by the way, is Charles Dickens. And all the envy-stoked criticism of him you can muster won't change the fact that his view of honesty will always be preferred over yours. Give me an honest dunce over a well-read liar any day.

You child.

January 15, 2009 at 8:40 PM 

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