Books we pretend we’ve read… but haven’t: a bluffer’s guide

A twitter post showing a bookshop table with the heading Books We Pretend We’ve Read led Review to wonder what are the classic tomes that so many of us like to think we know… even if we haven’t gotten past the first chapter.

e’ve picked 10 of the most famous books and offered a synopsis of each. Just enough to get by if you’re in a dinner party and there’s something beside you who, it seems, has read everything ever printed and wants you to know about it.

Be warned, some plot spoilers below.

James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce

Constructed as a modern parallel to The Odyssey (see below), all the action in this classic takes place in and around Dublin on June 16, 1904 (known to Joyceans as Bloomsday). Drama centres on Stephen Dedalus — who appeared in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — advertising man Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly. Stephen walks along the beach, unhappy, while Leopold picks up a letter from a woman with whom he has an illicit correspondence. There’s lunch (a cheese sandwich), discussions on Hamlet, and some drunken behaviour before Leopold takes Stephen, who he’s encountered throughout his day, to a cabman’s shelter for food. They later have cocoa and a chat in Leopold’s house before Stephen leaves and husband describes his day to his wife.

What to say: Joyce’s use of the interior monologue and stream of consciousness technique is quite enlightening.

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Ulysses by James Joyce Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce

The Odyssey by Homer

One for the classicists, you may think, but it’s full of talking points. A decade after the fall of Troy (yes, the wooden horse story), Greek hero Odysseus hasn’t arrived home to Ithaca. He perhaps should: it’s not the place he left, and plenty are trying to woo his wife, Penelope, who’s remained faithful to her husband. Odysseus wants to come home to Penelope and son Telemachus, but is imprisoned on an island thanks to Calypso (who loves him). The gods of Mount Olympus debate what to do, as Athena aids Telemachus, who discovers his father is alive. Calypso is persuaded to allow Odysseus to build a ship and leave but he ends up on another island, where he recounts his tales. Once back in Ithaca, he participates in an archery competition — the only man who can fire an arrow through a row of 12 axes if you don’t mind — and ta dah, he reunites with Penelope.

What to say: You can see why Odysseus was a symbol for Greek culture, embodying bravery, heroism and honour, not just for himself but others.

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

It’s been on the telly for a good few years now but Atwood’s 1985 book is where it all began. Welcome to the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that’s replaced the United States. Handmaids have been assigned to bear children for elite couples that are having trouble conceiving. Offred is a handmaid and serves (that’s right, ‘serves’) the Commander and his wife — each Handmaid’s name derives from ‘of’ plus the name of their Commander. Outside the home, the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force, watch her every move. As Offred recounts her present, she often slips into her past as a wife, mother and activist. She learns about Mayday, an underground organisation aiming to overthrow Gilead, and towards the novel’s end, meets some of its members. A sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019 and is narrated by Aunt Lydia, who appears in The Handmaid’s Tale.

What to say: Many aspect of the book was inspired by political and social events of the 1980s.

George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

We talk about timely novels and Orwell’s 1984 is no less important. Published in 1949, the memory of Nazi dictatorship still uncomfortably fresh, the Iron Curtain a reality makes the setting of dystopian Britain, part of Oceania, all too prescient. Control is the name of the game, ruled as the populace is by the Party (its leader is Big Brother) and its four Ministries of Peace, Plenty, Love and Truth. Which may sound like characters in a Disney film but… no. Doublespeak is the language of choice, aka deliberately ambitious speech, and words are used as a form of power. Low ranking Party member Winston Smith has a brief flicker of love with fellow employee Julia and as their relationship blooms, his dislike for the Party intensifies. Things will not end satisfactorily.

What to say: Of course, Orwell wanted to warn reader of the dangers of totalitarianism… such a cautionary tale.

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Captain Ahab has an arguable vendetta against Moby Dick, who was responsible for separating one of his legs from the rest of his body. On board The Pequod with a motley crew, which is putting it mildly, Ahab sets off to hunt down the whale, seeing it as the embodiment of all that is evil in the world. A bit harsh, perhaps. It’s narrated by Ishmael, a junior member of the Pequod’s crew, who presents events as he saw them and is the subject of one of literature’s most famous opening lines, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ Ahab becomes increasingly obsessed with his quest, offering a lot of money for the first person to spot Moby. Once spotted, Moby fights back against the Pequod over three days and… not everyone makes it out alive.

What to say: The novel’s ability to produce multiple interpretations is surely one of the reasons it’s considered a leading American novel.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Wasn’t this a film with Martin Freeman? Yes, but Bilbo Baggins walked so the likes Harry Potter and the Game of Thrones families could run (and do magic, and plunder and pillage). Bilbo and his mates go on a journey to win some treasure guarded by a dragon named Smaug, after being tricked into hosting a party by Gandalf. Oh Gandalf, you tease. Beginning as shy and complacent — at one point in the quest Bilbo is so scared that he faints — his strength of character shines through. There is more to this hobbit by the end of the novel than meets the eye. Tolkien was inspired to write the novel while marking examination papers, and once completed, he sent to several friends, including local man CS Lewis.

What to say: It’s amazing that it’s never gone out of print with adaptations receiving critical recognition on their own merits.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Former student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov lives in a garret in St Petersburg and is planning to commit a crime. He’s not quite sure which crime at the beginning, but sure, what’s a bit of murder of an unscrupulous pawnbroker and her sister between neighbours? He is soon suspected by the police and falls into four days of delirium and fever. Once much improved, Raskolnikov is filled with nightmarish guilt and he struggles with his conscience and the increasing level of suspicion. Oh, and his sister and mum arrive in St Petersburg, adding another layer of drama. There’s plenty of threats, admissions and a confession, which is then used to bribe another into marriage. At last — and we have really reduced the plot — Raskolnikov turns himself in and is sentenced to eight years of hard labour in Siberia, shutting out other prisoners and the woman who actually loves him. Don’t worry though, he is ultimately able to accept and return her love. Awh.

What to say: Though the psychology of crime and punishment is vital throughout the novel, so too is the importance of family.

JD Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Holden Caulfield narrates events which occur between the end of the autumn school terms and Christmas, when he was 16. After being told he’s going to be expelled (this will be the fourth school he’s said adieu to), he becomes annoyed when his roommate, Stradlater, spends the evening with Jane, a girl Holden used to date. He decides to come home to Manhattan a few days early, checking into the Edmont Hotel and people watching the guests. There’s plenty of toing and froing across New York, meeting old friends, friends and friends and, er, people whose time you pay for, before he attempts to sneak into the family apartment. He tells his sister Phoebe, grumpy at having been woken up, his fantasy of being ‘the catcher in the rye,’ someone who catches children as they are about to fall off a cliff. The novel ends after a fairground ride, and while it’s clear at the beginning that he’s undergoing treatment in a hospital, Holden doesn’t give information on how that came about.

What to say: Salinger captures that awkward in-between phase of adolescence and adulthood so beautifully.

Author Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Set in the mid-1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, the classic novel centres on six-year-old Scout Finch, who lives with her brother Jem and her lawyer father Atticus. Though many in Maycomb hold racist views, Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. As Atticus undertakes the case, knowing he has little chance of winning, Scout and Jem, with new friend Dill, are working on making their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley leave his house. Things become increasingly heated as the town wants to have its say about Tom’s case. Expect some violent scenes pre, during and after the verdict, scenes which bring Jem and Scout into this dangerous world. That said, Scout finally gets to imagine what life is like for Boo.

What to say: Mockingbirds are symbols of innocence within the novel, which refers to Atticus’ line that it’s a ‘sin to kill a mockingbird because they don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.’

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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Another novel set in St Petersburg, this time in 1805, as fear of Napoleon’s war is setting in. Many of the characters meet at a party — Pierre Bezukhov, Andrey Bolkonsky and the Rostov and Kuragin families — and much of the novel focuses on interactions between these families. Andrey and Nikolay Rostov go to war, get married, the latter of which doesn’t work for either. Nikolay later witnesses the peace between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I. There’s romantic rejection (lots of it) before Napoleon invades Russia in 1812. Pierre is driven to believe he must personally assassinate Napoleon, before being imprisoned. The novel ends with a marriage and the enjoyment of a happy life.

What to say: Life is full of contradictions, and it’s clear war can oddly bring out the best and worst in many.

Belfast Telegraph