actually, people would rather be known for confessing to not reading than to be known as readers

So here’s this Mallory Ortberg post about lying about having read books you haven’t read. Ortberg:

It is possible, I suppose, that you are the sort of self-actualized person who has never once pretended to have read or seen something she hasn’t in conversation, and that you are never anxious about your social status, and the idea of dissembling is simply alien to you, and you laugh a silver-throated laugh at the very idea of pretending to have read a book when you could simply say “I haven’t read it” because life is a constant process of learning for you. Perhaps you are that kind of person. I wish you joy and have no interest in speaking any further with you.

I want to put it to you that this post is indicative of the whole Geek Grievance Industrial Complex I wrote about here, even though it isn’t specifically about geek culture, in that it is a perfect example of liking things against other people — and here, culture as only an oppositional force. It’s pure, Tea Party-style culture of resentment, drawing strength and pleasure from railing at an imagined elite.

The pretense of this paragraph, and of the piece, is that there is some sort of social or cultural benefit that accrues to people that have read a lot. This is, frankly, nuts. Look at the comments! They are absolutely gleeful in the discussion of what they haven’t read. They rush to “confess,” not pausing to consider the fact that people who actually have to confess things don’t enjoy doing it. They talk about guilt as if anybody involved in that enterprise feels any  guilt at all, when the whole thing reeks of self-satisfaction and pride. The notion that not reading literary fiction is some sort of reason for guilt or shame is just not supportable by any rational examination of our contemporary culture. This is the point that I refuse to stop making: people pretend that there is some sort of social pressure to “eat your vegetables” when absolutely all of the social pressure is actually directed towards being one of the people who complain about the pressure to eat your vegetables. It’s a culture of confessors, not a culture of prosecutors.

Since that piece in the New York Times came out, and long before it, people have accused me of all manner of bad faith, of hidden motives, of trying to enforce my taste on others…. But in fact all I’ve ever asked is for what pop culture and fandom fans say they want: the right to like what I like. I have, actually, read Infinite Jest. I didn’t like it much, actually. But either way, it’d be nice if my liking or not liking it was just allowed to be that, an honest expression of genuine preference rather than some feint in a social war where we fight to establish our greater value. The notion that saying “yeah I read Infinite Jest” is necessarily some sort of brag just cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny. In fact, because of the pressure to treat these acts of confession as some sort of secular sacrament that all decent people take part in –or risk, as with Ortberg, people having no further desire to speak to you — I think the opposite is the case. You would think that, if the social pressure people complain about existed, you wouldn’t have 800+ comments of people joyfully defying the pressure.

I don’t need people to like what I like. I don’t even need them to respect, in some abstract sense, that I have separate tastes. What I would like is a world in which I don’t have nefarious motives ascribed to my tastes, where I am allowed to simply say “I like this and I don’t like that” without someone immediately popping up to claim that I only say I like those things to appear smart or cultured. The top comment on that Toast thread says, “this is not a venue for you to go ‘OH BUT YOU REALLY MUSTTTTTTT’ at people, we are here for HONESTY.” We are here for honesty: in other words, we are here to have our own preferences and choices affirmed, and we will specifically affirm them by responding to your claims of other preferences by calling them dishonest. What a horrible limited, narrow aesthetic world to live in.

Just like what you like, and stop legislating what I have to like through  your complaints about a social pressure that doesn’t exist. The only people perpetuating the notion of a guilty pleasure are the people who say that they are made to feel guilt. Just let go. Look at the new world around you and let go.

(I even like War & Peace. I’m eviiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiil!)


  1. I think this pressure exists but it is almost entirely internal, rather than social. So the glee in the comment threads is a kind of middle finger to that internalized voice that says you should read more, improve yourself, take that Coursera class, etc. Or maybe that’s just me.

  2. Cool, I’m “self-actualized!”

    I read a little Infinite Jest. I thought it had some iffy content, and some good content, but not enough of the latter to keep me reading for 1000 pages.

    BTW, Freddie, as of now, your paragraph starting “The pretense of this paragraph” is cut off after “That’s how people”

  3. The only thing I would encourage people to lie about is Marx’s Capital.

    If you’ve skimmed it once, and memorized an obscure footnote or two to impress people, you should be able to call yourself a Marxist.

  4. I mostly agree with your general point but I think you’re ascribing things to this specific piece that aren’t there. For example this

    “In fact, because of the pressure to treat these acts of confession as some sort of secular sacrament that all decent people take part in –or risk, as with Ortberg, people having no further desire to speak to you…”

    is more or less the opposite of what Ortberg (jokingly, of course) says – she doesn’t want to speak to you if you do readily and openly confess that you haven’t read Infinite Jest or whatever, rather than neurotically lying about it. If you actually have read it you’re off the hook entirely.

    Also I think the “guilt” here has to be understood in the context of The Toast in general, which prides itself on being a particularly “literary” humor site, and regularly runs posts about Balzac, Lorca, Milton, Borges, Hardy, etc. etc. They are jokey pieces of course but as far as I can tell you do have to have actually read the books in question to get the joke (I’ve only read the latter three authors…). In the context of this particular site it makes more sense to mock-confess to not having read a famous book. Certainly in the pop-culture internet at large this would not make sense, but this is after all a site that concerns itself quite a bit with “cultural vegetables” and not overly much with pop culture per se. (Note that several of the confessed items are pop-culture staples – The Wire, George Martin, etc. Confessing to not having seen The Wire WOULD actually result in a loss of perceived social status in the pop-culture enclaves of the internet.)

    Also I really don’t understand which part of the piece could possibly be “ascribing nefarious motives to your tastes” (which, I hasten to add, are much the same as mine, though I loved Infinite Jest). There’s absolutely no indication that people who have read and claimed to like the books are lying, or wrong, or that everyone who claims to have read the books is lying (and if the books the author “confesses” to not having read are relatively non-canonical things like Lucky Jim and Camille Paglia, rather than say Hamlet and the Iliad or whatever, one can read between the lines and guess that she likes reading literary fiction and has read quite a bit). I’m really curious as to where in this particular piece you’re picking up this hostility – in a few other posts you’ve written about in the same vein the hostility is clear, but this doesn’t even seem in the same category.

  5. Victimhood, whining, intellectual snobbery, butting in on other people’s conversations, and mansplaining, all in one post. Is this peak Freddie?

    1. Victimhood

      The opposite


      Having an opinion you don’t like

      intellectual snobbery

      Proving my point for me

      butting in on other people’s conversations

      Responding to a public post on a public website, just like you are doing here


      The Toast is filled with male commenters as well as female

      Is this peak dopey, insecure commenter? I think so!

          1. Okay, seriously, I didn’t call you irrelevant, you self-righteous twat. Either way, I can see we’re done here.

      1. Also, remember the last time you decided that an avowedly feminist site really needed your opinion about how to conduct their own business and why their comment policy was really a drag for you personally? It’s too bad that’s not going to happen again here.

  6. War and Peace is the absolute best.
    Honestly, for anyone who has trouble focusing on literary fiction, now that their attention span has been dynamited by the internet, I really recommend listening to the audiobook versions, especially if you’re like me and have regular bouts of insomnia when lying still at 3 AM listening to some absurdly upper-class English voice enunciate Pierre and Andrei’s arguments is a superior alternative to refreshing Talking Points Memo or worrying.

    1. Agreed. I think the greatest scene in all of literature might be the one in War and Peace where the Polish hussars swim the review to impress Napoleon. Most of them drown. And he wasn’t even paying attention.

        1. The sequence of scenes leading up to Nikolai losing 40,000 to Dolokhov might be my favorite– so many threads of the story lead up to it, and so many threads lead away.

          What Would Kutuzov Do (sleep, eat some chicken, destroy Napoleon’s army through patience) is, I feel, a very useful model for many areas of human life.

          1. I think Tolstoy also made it clear that it wasn’t the Winter that destroyed Napoleon. It was scale, distance.

            Nikolai’s gambling debt is indeed a great scene.

            So is the lynching behind the Russian lines and Tolstoy’s speculations on what turns normal men into monsters.

            I think Tolstoy’s descriptions of Borodino and how generals don’t make history finally let me understand why Meade didn’t destroy Lee’s army trapped up against the Potomac after the Battle of Gettysburg.

            Mead, like Kutuzov, knew you couldn’t make an army move if the army didn’t have the spirit to move. He realized he didn’t count, a fact that was pretty much confirmed when Grant nearly destroyed the Union Army trying to take Richmond in 1864.

      1. So many great scenes but my favorite is the evening that Natasha and Nikolai spend together after a family hunt. Such a vivid scene that hit me to my core. After reading war and peace, I had dreams of Natasha. What a character!

  7. The pretense of her piece is that social benefits accrue to people who say they have read a lot. She’s not reacting to cultural pressure to actually read the books, but the general hypocrisy in which it’s effective to claim you’ve read a “prestige” book and therefore appear higher status, more intimidating, smarter. The reason for guilt/shame is lying about reading books you haven’t read .

    1. And I am arguing that in fact, as that comments section demonstrates, there is greater social value in confessing to lying about reading prestige books than there is in appearing to have prestige books. Because the social benefit of being proudly populist is now far higher than the social benefit of being an elite, culturally.

      1. This is it exactly. I have never felt the need to lie about having read anything, other than to professors. I have, however, often lied about having watched a football game, when I was in fact reading, and yes it does pain me to admit this now. And if someone wrote a post about it the responses would probably be like: why would you lie about that? But the truth is, signaling that you’re a Ravens fan (even now) …THAT is pressure.

      2. Hey, there isn’t any competition here. Don’t limit yourself. You can get both sets of social benefits. You can lie about reading highbrow stuff, then lie about reading YA books. You can even tell people that you lied about reading books that you actually read!

  8. Pretty sure this guide to defending one’s musical taste, written in maybe 1997, has never been more relevant:

    The internet has only amplified the feeling of taste-as-identity and all the territorialism and xenophobia that comes with it. I, too, wish we could all just let it go, but I’m not optimistic.

  9. They feel so much free-floating “guilt or shame” that it’s a relief to have something to attach it to and some people to attach it with. With the maceration of local organizations capable of attracting loyalty, these micro-oppositional social movements are the only form of unconditional-support community available to many neo-urban somethings.

  10. “There is an alternative: self-possession. Self-ownership. Not self-confidence or self-esteem, both of which are just bizarre, fake concepts to me. […] Self-ownership means that everything that you are and do are yours, even when they’re embarrassing or sucky. Everything that’s you is yours, and you become your only judge.” – Fredrik DeBoer

    Why do you care about articles like Ordberg’s?

    What makes them worth responding to, in your eyes?

    What is accomplished by responding to them in the fashion that you have?

    1. I’m really making a very simple point. People are clearly not afraid to express that they haven’t read things, right? I’m only pointing out that they can go one step further and drop the whole guilt canard.

      Also: when I say that people berate me for liking traditional high culture, I’m not making it up. I’m asking to be left alone.

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