Literary Lies: The Five Things You Really Mean When You Say “It’s On My List”

As a person whose apartment would probably draw casting agents if anyone ever develops a TV show about book hoarding, I never thought I’d feel this way.

I’ve probably said it hundreds of times in my adult life, and heard it just as many times from friends (especially since I added a whole new layer of awkwardness to my social life by publishing a book that only a few people have actually read).

Sure, you could look at the phrase “it’s on my reading list!” as a harmless way to deal with the author in your high school class. It works great on anyone who loved the latest treatise on epidemiology, genetics, or the future of cloud computing, and you can also keep it on hand for folks obsessed with the newest dystopian young adult novel, guide to spirituality, or food-based memoir.

But face it. The one thing “it’s on my reading list” almost never means is “I intend to read that book.” Never before did one little phrase incorporate such an interesting array of self-serving lies.

Here are five things I believe we really mean when we say “it’s on my reading list.”

1)      “I have zero interest in that book, but to avoid offending you, I’m going to pretend otherwise.”

It’s just a book, for God’s sake.  And if someone’s going to give you the cold shoulder for not promising to read some book he or she recommended, remind me why you’re friends?

2)      “That book does not appeal to me, but I’d rather not admit my real interests.” 

Implying that you’re just about to download that particular title onto your Kindle can be an attempt to make other people think you care about things that you really don’t give a hoot about – but who made them the boss of your professed interests?

3)      “I’ve never even heard of that book, but I don’t want you to think I’m a huge ignoramus who doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review or listen to Terry Gross.”

Sure, what someone’s wearing or eating can give us clues to who they are, but glimpsing what someone else is reading is probably the closest we can get to peeking right inside a stranger’s mind without saying a word, and we’d all probably rather be heard raving about Steven Pinker than Stephenie Meyer. Making all sorts of wild claims about what’s on our reading list is one way to build ourselves up in the eyes of others, because when it comes to symbols of intellect – or lack thereof – it’s hard to beat a book (or a mention of your “reading list”).

4) “Funny you should mention that famous, famous book – I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t read it.”

This is one that I’m guilty of.  I have read hundreds of books. But I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (read The Hobbit and that was enough), any Dickens except for A Christmas Carol and part of David Copperfield (I couldn’t take all the weeping), Little Women, Don Quixote, The Grapes of Wrath, Silent Spring or The Kite Runner and I have only the merest smattering of Dostoyevsky and absolutely no Jonathan Franzen, Michiko Kakutani, or David Foster Wallace.  I may read some of them one day. I may not. But I’m going to quit claiming they’re “on my list” any time somebody brings them up.

5) “Of course I have top-flight literary tastes, but I’m too busy and important to have any time for reading.”

Sometimes, pleading the “reading list” isn’t just an attempt to placate someone else, hide your true self or alert the world to your intellect. It’s also a heavy clue about your high-powered lifestyle to anyone who asks (or doesn’t). Here, I must give credit to Tim Kreider’s excellent New York Times essay, “The Busy Trap,” which skewers our self-imposed human hamster wheels and explains why we actually love complaining that we’re busy. Somehow, grousing about our packed schedules has become more fun than reading.

But the book-suggesting masses aren’t going anywhere (and I say this as a person who probably devotes an hour a week to convincing friends, family and co-workers that they’ve got to read whatever book I just finished). How do we cope? I have a few suggestions.

  • You can always give someone else the impression of a sparkling conversation without saying anything at all about yourself or your intentions. It’s called asking questions.  If the other person enjoyed the book, just ask him about it. There is no need to guide the conversation with announcements about reading the book yourself.
  • Stand up for what you really like. If you’d rather not read books about forestry, politics or sexuality, but you love wizards, parenting tips or naval history, say so (politely). It’s not a crime to have your own interests.
  • Be nice without actually implying anything about what you’re going to do. Just trade “it’s on my reading list” for “thanks for the recommendation.” It’s friendly and it’s not a lie.
  • Forget the reading list altogether. Reading doesn’t need to be regimented and curated by you or anyone else. Just read a book. When it’s done, find another one that looks groovy. Repeat.
  • If someone recommends a book you don’t think you’d like, why not expand your horizons? Don’t tell the person that the book is “on your list.” Borrow it and read it. (I tried this at the office recently and am now reading a book with a picture of a horse running through the ocean surf on the cover. The Untethered Soul is actually pretty interesting.)

Enjoying a book is a bit like letting someone else inhabit your mind for awhile – or vice versa. Our taste in books is an intimate part of who we are and what we love. Since our library reveals so much about ourselves, maybe that’s why we tread so carefully when talking about books – and why a statement as innocuous as “it’s on my reading list” can be so many things, from a way to keep the peace to a subtle dispatch on your own importance.

I admit that at heart, the “it’s on my list” syndrome is probably just a harmlessly polite affirmation to dole out to others without inconveniencing yourself.

But I’ve decided to quit saying it, unless the title is truly on my shelf or on my wish-list. And I absolve everyone else of the need to say it to me, even if I wrote the book in question (read it if you want to, or don’t, but don’t feel obligated to bring it up). I won’t hold it against you if you and I have different tastes in books, and I won’t conceal my true interests or feign fascination with yours, so let’s get down to a real conversation about books or anything else that brings some honesty to our social and intellectual world.

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10 Comments

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  1. Your blog is always on my reading list 🙂

  2. Am I allowed to say, “Gee I would love to put that book on my reading list, but I don´t have a reading list, and I find it overbearing when people try to push their favorite books on me”?

    And while I´m here, where is the question mark actually supposed to go in a sentence like the above?? I´ve always wondered about this. Thank you.

    • Bron, that falls under “thanks for the recommendation!”

      You’ve placed the question mark correctly. The quotation itself is not a question, but it’s forming a question as part of a larger phrase, thus, question mark outside of the quotation marks. I am happy to discuss this further with you once you’re back in the country.

      • I can’t believe I placed the question mark correctly. Maybe learning new languages helped my English grammatical intuition.

        Enjoyed the dreadlock photos and descriptions, by the way.

      • Yes – I always say that I never really learned anything about English grammar until I learned Latin. So it could be that your Spanish and Portuguese adventures have improved your English grammar – or just that you’re a smart dude who knows his way around punctuation.

  3. Great post! I recently gave away most of the books I’d kept on my shelves for years with the intention of eventually getting around to reading them. It felt very good. And I don’t miss a single one of them.

    • SACRILEGE! Very few things could entice me to give away books: trading them for new books, worthwhile charity, or if it’s a book I hate. I find that even if a book has been sitting around for years, I never know when I am seized by the desire to read (or re-read) that particular book. I will lend books, though.

      Congrats on escaping the book-hoarding affliction that plagues so many of us.

  4. No. 4 accurately describes my estranged relationship with Tolstoy’s “War & Peace”. Only instead of the phrase ‘It’s on my list’ I’ve opted for the much more time-friendly ‘I’m saving it for my retirement’. At least then when I do reach that age most of the people I’ve said that to will have forgotten by that point…

    • Fabulous.

      At this point I am planning never to retire, partly because I can’t imagine giving up writing, and partly because I don’t see how I can ever save up enough money to quit working for the last twenty years of my life or so.

      Good luck with W&P. I’ve never read it either.

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