Friday 3 July 2009

You Are What You Eat

Reading is a complex cultural phenomenon, one that is burdened with a number of assumptions. We are what we eat, and it is assumed that we are also what we read. This may be why a recent survey in the UK found that two-thirds of respondents (total 1,342) admitted that they have lied about reading a particular book in order to impress someone. The respondents were visitors to a site marking World Book Day, mind you, so they were all individuals who can be considered “readers,” or at least very interested in reading. Given a list of 10 possible books, the one most commonly lied about was George Orwell’s 1984, followed by Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with Joyce’s Ulysses and The Bible pretty much tied for third. When asked what books they actually read and enjoyed, around 60% mentioned J. K. Rowling the author of the Harry Potter series, and almost a third said John Grisham. Readers are clearly adept presenting themselves as lovers of the classics, when their own habits seem unlikely to reflect this claim. There is even a book on how to talk about books one hasn’t read, as mentioned in a previous post.

So how are we to know what someone has actually read? One way is to catch them in the act, as Julie Wilson does for her blog SeenReading. Ms. Wilson writes fascinating little posts based on people she sees reading, typically on the public transit system here in Toronto. Each post includes a short physical description of the reader, their location, the book, and a quoted passage that is estimated by peeking over their shoulder at the page number. It ends with a short piece of creative writing by Ms. Wilson, inspired by the person and the page.

A caution, then, to those who might be tempted to lie about their reading habits. You never know when someone might be watching.

Photo: Moriza


Anonymous said...

I think what we read affects the way in which we think. However, they don't neccessarily reflect who we are. No one can be truly defined by a single thing.

I really like this thought.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this comment: interesting, and I agree. None of us can be defined by a single thing. But sometimes—don't you think?—a novel, or short story, or film, if we want it to, can add something to who we are.

Raymond A. Mar said...

What I'm fascinated by is the public perception, as much as the reality. A friend recently expressed a great deal of embarrassment when it was revealed that she is reading the Harry Potter series. As an MD/PhD I don't think anyone questions her intelligence or maturity, but it's fascinating that so many of us are beset by these "guilty" pleasures. Should we feel guilty for things we find enjoyable? Must we apologize for our "summer reading"?

Anonymous said...

I think that what we read does reflect certain aspects of our personality. However, the idea that we are being judged based on our reading choices is quite troublesome especially since many people, including myself, enjoy reading as a form of escapism from their everyday lives.
Bring on the Harry Potter!

Raymond A. Mar said...

I think almost everyone engages in a bit of guilty-pleasure reading now and again, so you're certainly not alone. I just wonder people are evaluated more harshly based on the reading habits than their other media consumption habits. People don't seem at all as embarrassed by their enjoyment of trashy TV, or trashy movies. Is this partially an indication of how our society views reading? And is this attitude possibly detrimental to reading overall? One should like to think that it would be best if we could sit down to read without having to worry what our neighbours might think!

Incidentally, they sell version of Harry Potter with "adult" covers:

Or, you could always make a custom leather book-cover to conceal your guilty pleasures:

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