Coming Clean About Books You Never Read
This is a guest post from Andy Browers. Andy believes in going to State Fairs, road trips, fist-pumping at wedding receptions to rock and roll, all you can eat sushi, and doing it all with a book in your hand. He writes blogs and essays from Minneapolis, MN.
It was the sort of question you can feel coming before the asker even has a chance to open their mouth. You can see it in their eyes—bright, hopeful, sure that they’ve found a literary lifemate in you.
I rummaged for what my reply would be. My usual arsenal included vague non-answers like “yeah, but it was really a long time ago,” “I skimmed it,” “it sounds familiar, but I can’t remember,” or if I felt especially brazen there was the unflappable “yes.”
But sometimes (see also: many, many times) I had not read the beloved book my friend/classmate/bus buddy/colleague/fellow party guest was asking about. So I would lie.
I’m not proud. But I’m trying to clean up my act—an act that has sometimes not been above dishing out the same judgment that gave me panic-induced dyspepsia from time to time when geeking out with fellow readers. I remember a particular instance when I must have seemed apocalyptically scandalized when I asked a friend of mine about her new body art.
I forget the sound that came out of me, or the shape my face made, but it was probably a cross between an Edvard Munch painting and a velociraptor.
I didn’t understand. How could a person declare their love of The Lord of the Rings with a tattoo having never even read them? How? That is a serious level of love, so you better be prepared to debate the power the One Ring did or did not hold over Tom Bombadil, or face the consequences.
I felt somehow betrayed as a fan, as a reader, as a human being. At parties where we would marathon the extended edition movies, if someone would mention they’d never read a single work that Tolkien ever wrote, some of us would shake our heads and sigh.
People say you tend to be repulsed most by the qualities in others that repulse you the most about yourself; those people tell the truth. I’m repulsed by people who love processed cheese in their grilled sandwiches for similar reasons. Velveeta forever. And I’m repulsed by my own occasional booklist shortcomings, all the times I failed to finish or even start so many.
You are about the fifth person to whom I have ever confessed this: I never finished reading The Return of the King. I couldn’t do it. I forced myself through the first two installments at a pace that wouldn’t have even qualified me for the slow loris junior varsity track team. I had to reread huge passages because I kept realizing my eyes were moving across pages I wasn’t trying to comprehend because I was bored out of my gourd.
But I wanted to finish. I wanted to admire the ink that my soul would acquire the moment the last page was turned—a tattoo to make me an instant comrade of any other true believing fans that had gotten through them all at their own pace. Which was probably pretty swift, because they are beloved books, those Lord of the Rings installments. And I loved them from a pining distance, knowing my literary crush was too smart, too intricate, and too long for any chance of true love.
As the fifth person to know this secret, if you want to recoil in horror I totally empathize. It’s hard to believe someone has deprived themselves of such a pleasure, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe someone didn’t dedicate the time and effort to enjoy a work of such scope. It’s hard to know that someday if I make it to my idea of the afterlife, which includes a badass used bookstore with free coffee, obviously, I may bump into the author himself and have to explain to his patient but heartbroken face that I didn’t like his stuff.
It’s hard, but I’m trying to be better about owning up to a thing I can’t always help: my personal taste. I’m trying to overcome the pressure to say “yes” when someone asks with that glowing, hopeful look “oh, have you read it?” I’m trying to overcome the desire to skim Wikipedia to get the highlights so I can talk shop with fans. I’m trying to let go of the fear of missing out, of the fear of looking ignorant, of the fear of someday having my own book specific tattoo mocked or doubted if I ever get one (see also: I will).
I try to be gentle with others who might be confessing for only the fifth time ever that they like or don’t like something I’ve read. I try to remember that we grew up with different books sitting on the shelves of our parents or older siblings, with different local libraries, or a billion other differences that shape a reader.
If they can forgive my grilled cheese shortcomings, I think all things are possible.