Sunday, 7 February 2016

How many of the twenty novels people most lie about reading have you not read?

You’ve probably heard of the recent BBC Store study about the well-known books we most lie about having read. Presumably the latest television adaptation of War and Peace was the inspiration for asking 2000 adults about the books they claim to have read without having actually done so. I thought I’d assess my performance on the 20 books mentioned. As an inveterate giver-up after a few chapters when it comes to books I ought to have read, I thought I’d do badly - but I surprised myself. Here are the results:

1. Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland
Yup. And Through the Looking Glass. Knocked off both when I was 11. Not a huge fan, and I never felt inclined to reread them, but they were easy to read, and I liked Tenniel’s illustrations.

2. 1984
Twice - once when I was 16 or 17, then again as an adult. One of the most stimulating works of fiction I’ve ever read: genuinely helped mould my political beliefs.

3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Okay, I’ll come clean - I reached the halfway stage of the second volume when I found myself unconsciously echoing the comment of Professor Hugo Dyson, when Tolkien was reading an early draft to a group of friends: “Oh no - not another fucking elf!” Mind you, I did love The Hobbit.

4. War and Peace
I finally got round to tit when I was about 40. Spellbound, awed, astonished. The greatest novel I have ever read. If I reach 70, I might give it another go. (Apparently the film director Franco Zefferelli re-read it once a year.)

5. Anna Karenina
I can’t remember when I read it - late 20s? Superb.

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
At least ten times, starting at the age of 12.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird
Yes. As a teenager, after seeing the film on television. Perfect young person's book.

8. David Copperfield
No. Not sure why. Started it a few times.

9. Crime and Punishment
I’d mentally filed this under “read”, and I know the story well. But I have a horrible feeling I might have read the Classics Illustrated comic version and seen a TV adaptation. Odd, because I’m a Dostoevsky admirer, and loved The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and The Devils.

10. Pride and Prejudice
Yes, at least twice. I may have read it at school, when we did Emma at A-level, but I’m not sure. I definitely read it in my mid-20s, when I made an assault on F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition quartet - George Eliot (of whom I made a pretty good fist - even managed Daniel Deronda), Henry James (I’ll admit I balked at the last three novels), Joseph Conrad (though I have never been able to get through Nostromo) and D.H. Lawrence (only managed Sons and Lovers - and I’m not even sure I reached the end - and Women in Love). And I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice since then. A delight, obviously, no matter how rude Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin were about Jane Austen.

11. Bleak House
Staggered to the halfway stage about ten years’ ago: the first 100 pages or so were great, but I flagged around  the 400 mark. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Our Mutual Friend and Barnaby Rudge two years ago, I may have to give Bleak House another go - especially as my wife loves it, and has read it several times.

12. Harry Potter series
First three, after which she stopped self-editing and I was struck by a severe bout of “fucking elf” syndrome.

13. Great Expectations
Yes. Some time in my 20s.

14. The Diary of Anne Frank
Yes. Probably in my teens.

15. Oliver Twist
Yes. First Dickens novel I read. Summer after A-levels.

16. Fifty Shades trilogy
You’re kidding, right?

17. And Then There Were None
Yes, in my teens. (I still have the green Penguin edition bearing the original title, “Ten Little Niggers”, possession of which may now constitute a hate crime.)

18. The Great Gatsby
Yes. Twice, because I couldn’t figure out what was meant to be so all-fired special about it on first reading. Preferred This Side of Paradise, and read Tender is the Night, despite its hero being called Dick Diver.

19. Catch 22
Got about a third of the way through. Loathed its smart-arsed tone and anti-war message.

20. The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, on a holiday in Scotland, aged 12, after finding an American paperback edition. Enjoyed it then, but not so much when I attempted to reread it 20 years later.

What surprises me is how many books I managed to read as a teenager. I wasn’t a wild party-goer, but I had friends, and spent a lot of my spare time with them. When did I manage to fit all that reading in - especially with all those music magazines, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Fiesta and Knave to get through as well? Not only that, but I had a peculiar quirk about reading which slowed me down considerably - I never skipped anything, and if my concentration wandered, I forced myself to go back and read the passage again. It’s not as if I was a swotty reader, either - I had one friend who, at the age of 13, read Anna Karenina while recovering from a hole-in-the-heart operation! And there was another school colleague - a built-like-a-brick-shithouse rugby forward who once got sent home for turning up with a skinhead haircut - who astonished me by revealing that he only ever read classic novels: he’d practically worked his way through the whole of Dostoevsky and Dickens by the age of 17.

Given the inroads the internet has made into young people's proper reading, it may be time for the BBC to do another version of it's excellent 2003 "Big Read" project, as a result of which I must have read about a dozen novels I might otherwise never have got round to.


  1. Frederic Raphael8 February 2016 at 15:22

    I have naturally read all of these books several times - the three Russian novels in the original language. The Dickens novels I translated into French first before reading them as I find the English language rather tedious. That is why I sprinkle my everyday conversation with felicitous foreign phrases [with the result that nobody knows what the hell I am on about].

    1. Oh, Fred - you wrote the screenplay for "Darling" and, of course, "The Glittering Prizes", and then you went and spoiled your reputation once and for all by helping Stanley Kubrick adapt "Eyes Wide Shut" for the screen. It actually contains the line "When she is having her little TITTIES squeezed, do you think she ever has any fantasies about what handsome Dr. Bill's DICKIE might be like?"
      One of yours, perchance?

  2. Good post;a welcome distraction from the chaos in Europe.I've read most of them.Like Mr.Gronmark I enjoyed 'The Catcher in The Rye' at age 13 or so.At university I was beguiled by a much better 'version'of this genre-'A Fan's Notes.'Reading these two books later on reminded one what both Fred Exley and Holden Caulfield needed was a good kick up the jacksie,the equivalent of your 'effing elf moment.
    As for 'Catch 22' I've got my own version thanks.
    Oh and 'War and Peace.'How many pages has it got?

    1. I've never read "A Fan's Notes", but, on your recommendation, now intend to do so. Thanks for the tip.

  3. Publishing At Random18 February 2016 at 01:36

    Frederick Raphael's modest claims pale into insignificance when compared with one magnificent assertion by Arnold J. Toynbee.

    Toynbee remarked of his 12 Volume work , 'A Study of History' (7000 pages plus 412 pages of indices ), as follows " It really would have been easier for me to write it in Latin or Greek "

  4. Spectator:
    [Andrew Davies's] adaptation of War and Peace has taken critical grapeshot for including incestuous romps that do not strictly feature in the novel. Simon Schama, who bashfully admits he has made his way to the end of the book only eight times, claims to have detected no evidence of a sexual relationship between siblings Anatole and Helene.

    1. That "only" is a nice touch, although it does rather make one want to slap him.