Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Yeah, Totally! 10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, we have a strict no-judgment policy. (Well, we can judge the books of course, but not each other. K?) That’s why you and I can be completely honest with each other: we all pretend to have read books that we really haven’t, right?

A new survey on this topic pops up every couple of years or so (usually when it’s a slow news day for the book blogs or morning television). The results always vary slightly, depending on which country is polled, where they find their participants and how many people they ask. I’ve read a stack of these listicles over the years, and I figured I’d boil them down into my own top ten. I’ve even included a couple that I’m very guilty of lying about myself. Let’s take a look…

10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read - Text on Background Grid of Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1984 – George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one appears on every list I’ve read, and I can’t understand why! Compared to some of the others, it’s a really easy read, so if you’re putting it off and fibbing about it, consider THIS the motivation that you need!

1984 is the prototypical dystopian novel, published back in 1949 (before we knew how bad things would actually get), and yet its relevance in the era of alternative facts increases day-by-day. It gave us “Newspeak”, and “Doublethink”, and – of course – “Big Brother”. It’s probably our familiarity with these concepts that makes us feel comfortable enough to pretend to have read Orwell’s masterpiece. I strongly recommend giving it a go anyway. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I swear!

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I am guilty as charged. I have lied about reading Pride and Prejudice on more than one occasion. In truth, I’ve started – and abandoned – it, no fewer than six times. I abandoned it so hard that I actually lost my copy of it altogether, and had to pick up a new one when I made my reading list for this project. When I finally sat down and forced myself through it, I discovered… well, you’ll have to read my review to find out. Read my full review of Pride and Prejudice here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you only pretend to have read Ulysses, I don’t blame you. In fact, I take no issue with you carrying on pretending to have read it until you die (or someone catches you out, whichever comes first). It’s a notoriously difficult read. Plus, everyone I know who has read it is incredibly smug about having done so. Read my full review of Ulysses here (it’s not too smug, I promise!).

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

War And Peace - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I believed for a long time that everyone lied about having read War And Peace – surely no one actually made it all the way through that behemoth! That was until I watched my husband do it. It took him months, cramming in a few pages every spare moment (on trains, during meal breaks, before bed…). He insists that it’s fantastic and well worth a read, but I’d want to be absolutely sure before making a commitment. Maybe we should try another (shorter!) Tolstoy classic first (like when I read Anna Karenina…).

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James


I was shocked to see Fifty Shades of Grey appear on any of these lists, and yet it keeps cropping up. Surely more people lie and say they haven’t read it? It has been widely decried as one of the worst things to happen to popular fiction in the 21st century, but I’ll admit I picked up a copy in a desperate moment (stuck in an airport waiting on a delayed flight, when options in English were limited). If you’re tempted to pretend to have read it (when you really haven’t), I wouldn’t bother. Be up front and tell them you get your literary smut elsewhere 😉

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, another book that spawned a cultural catchphrase that has lasted generations. I’d wager there’s plenty of folks out there that are well familiar with the concept of a Catch-22, but aren’t even aware that the phrase was born from a book of the same name. I’m also guilty of having chuckled along meekly when my better-read friends made jokes about this book… but not any more! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m just going to say it up front: listening to the Kate Bush song doesn’t count!

Brontë’s super-creepy semi-incestuous gothic romance isn’t for everyone, but I’m not sure it pays to only pretend to have read it. Wuthering Heights is so multi-layered and chock-full of metaphor that you might not know what you’re agreeing (or disagreeing) with. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here we are: another concept that a lot of us are already familiar with, and yet we all lie and pretend to have read the book (when we really haven’t). Are you sensing a pattern?

I can guarantee you that The Scarlet Letter is not what you’d expect. I thought it would be a full-on treatise about the oppression of female sexuality, with some dirty bits thrown in for good measure, but it was something else entirely. Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can completely understand the temptation not to bother reading the original Arthur Conan Doyle books, because the BBC’s Sherlock series is just so damn good! Still, given that the television program shifts the story to the present day (as well as taking a few other liberties), surely we’re missing out on something if we don’t give the original Adventures a once-over ourselves. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I thought I’d end on a surprise! Not only is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland one of the most unexpected entries, but it actually came up as the top result in one survey of the British reading public! Doesn’t that seem odd? A children’s book (a very easy read, it goes without saying) beats out War And Peace! My best guess is that everyone is emotionally attached to the Disney film they grew up with, and they figure it’s just as good. Far be it for me to dissuade them, but I’ve got to say I think they’re missing out! Carroll’s true brilliance and cleverness and wordplay can only be seen on the page… Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here.

So, these are the books you’ve most likely pretended to have read – was I right? Or do you have some other secret shame? Let me know in the comments below! (Or join the conversation with KUWTP on Facebook!)


  1. thankfully I am so old I have actually read some, 1984 (I read animal farm first), Alice, Sherlock Holmes. Catch 22 sounds interesting, I think I might try that one soon.

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog Sheree. I have been reading your posts. I love your style of blogging. Your posts are funny and informative.

    This was an interesting survey. I wonder why folks feel the need to fib about the books that they have read. I agree that Nineteen Eighty – Four was a fairly easy read so folks can just go for it and get it over with.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      February 23, 2018 at 1:15 PM

      Same to you, Brian – thank you for your kind words! Glad you’re enjoying it here. Hopefully, KUWTP can inspire a few folks to have a go at some of these so they can stop pretending. 😉

  3. I am never sure about this kind of survey. As you said, they pop up every couple of years. But who would REALLY spend time and money on this kind of surveys? How are they planned and carried out? (I have a thing for statistics, having had a scientific education and I get crazy when facing sloppiness in data presentation, that is, almost always.) Why would someone lying about books be willing to take time to answer a survey about books? And why would people lie about this kind of things? Notice that you can come up with dozens of reasons why you didn’t read this or that classic and, in a conversation, it is much easier to support such reasons appearing at the same time sofisticated and well educated, then face any questions about the book itself.
    Of course, you can always claim that you don’t remember the book.
    And, in fact, I counted the books in your List that I did read. First time I got 35. Second time I copied on a spreadshit not to lose count along the way (don’t tell me, I know, it’s tragic!) and I got 38. Now I got 37. Probably because I am not sure which Dos Passos I read. So you see? I, too, lie about the books I read. Only I don’t even know which books I am lying about.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      May 16, 2018 at 11:06 AM

      Hahahahahahahahaha! That’s very true, some “lies” about what books we’ve read are entirely unintentional! Even though I look over the List every day, I often find myself wondering “Hang on, did I read that book already?” and it takes me a minute to recall 😉 I would think that this kind of information would be useful to publishers and book publicists, but as I recall I don’t think they actually paid for or conducted any of the studies themselves… though a few retail booksellers have funded some of the research, which makes sense. I’m a psychology graduate, and I recall the difficulty in finding participants for research – how they manage it is beyond me! Thanks Marina 😉

      • The problem with surveys and market research is huge. If you fail to have a representative sample you might get sidetracked. This might be the reason why they changed all the display in the huge supermarkets in town and people is still cursing after months and they slowly are changing bits back as they were. 😀
        But this reply is in fact to apologise for the spreadshit above (ahahahah). I don’t know how I could missplell that way. Spreadsheets are one of my favourite things.
        Raindrops on roses
        and spreadsheet where numbers are written
        Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens

  4. Brian Artillery

    July 21, 2020 at 5:03 AM

    Other than ‘Pride And Prejudice’, which is tedious and twee, and ‘Ulysses’, which is so oblique, it is borderline unreadable, and of course, ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’, which is inexcusable sub slash fiction drivel, I have read the rest many times. I had just finished ‘Metamorphoses’, by Ovid, before I read this article. Depressingly enlightening. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I have read all except War and Peace. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me any questions about the books in the context of me claiming to have read them, so it doesn’t feel like it would be a big risk to claim to have read them. I also think there are too many books everyone “should have read” for everyone to be able to read them 😀
    But book snobbery is rather awful. It doesn’t really mean anything. I love genre fiction, and I know there are people who think I’m not “worthy” because of that 😀 Then the same people praise books like Goldfinch and The Corrections… Yeah…

  6. I’m so old I’ve read all except Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m a retired literature professor so I may have a wee bit of an advantage. I’m surprised Les Miserable is not on the long. It was brilliant.

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