Books We Claim We’ve Read…But Haven’t: A Bluffer’s Guide


A post on Twitter showing a bookstore board with the title Books We Pretend We’ve Read has Review wondering what are the classic tomes so many of us like to think we know…even if we haven’t gotten past the first one. chapter.

We have selected 10 of the most famous books and offered a summary of each. Just enough to get by if you’re at a dinner party and there’s something next to you that seems to have read everything that’s ever been printed and wants you to know.

Be warned, some spoilers below.

James Joyce’s Ulysses

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). The drama centers on Stephen Dedalus – who appeared in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – publicist Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly. Stephen walks along the beach, displeased, while Leopold retrieves a letter from a woman with whom he has an illicit correspondence. There is a lunch (a cheese sandwich), discussions of Hamlet and drunken behavior before Leopold takes Stephen, whom he has met throughout his day, to a taxi driver’s shelter for food . Later, they have cocoa and chat in Leopold’s house before Stephen leaves and her husband describes his day to his wife.

What to say: Joyce’s use of self-talk and the stream of consciousness technique is quite illuminating.

Homer’s Odyssey

One for the classics, you might think, but it’s full of talking points. A decade after the fall of Troy (yes, the story of the wooden horse), the Greek hero Odysseus has not returned home to Ithaca. Maybe he should: it’s not the place he left, and many try to woo his wife, Penelope, who has remained faithful to her husband. Odysseus wants to return home with Penelope and her 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 helps Telemachus, who discovers his father is alive. Calypso is persuaded to allow Odysseus to build a ship and leave but he finds himself on another island, where he tells his stories. Once back in Ithaca, he enters an archery competition – the only man who can shoot 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 of Greek culture, embodying bravery, heroism and honor, not only for himself but for others.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

It’s been on TV for a few years now, but Atwood’s 1985 book is where it all started. Welcome to the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that replaced the United States. Maids have been tasked with bearing children for elite couples who have trouble conceiving. Offred is a servant and serves (that’s right, “serves”) the commander and his wife – each servant’s name derives from “de” plus their commander’s name. Outside the house, the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police, watch his every move. As Offred recounts her present, she often slips into her past as a wife, mother, and activist. She discovers Mayday, an underground organization aiming to overthrow Gilead, and near the end of the novel meets some of its members. A sequel, The Testaments, was released in 2019 and is narrated by Aunt Lydia, who appears in The Handmaid’s Tale.

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

1984 by George Orwell

We are talking about topical novels and Orwell’s 1984 is no less important. Released in 1949, the memory of the 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, governed like the population by the Party (its leader is Big Brother) and its four ministries of Peace, Abundance, Love and Truth. Which may look like characters in a Disney movie but… no. Doublespeak is the language of choice, that is, deliberately ambitious speech, and words are used as a form of power. Winston Smith, a low-ranking Party member, has a brief spark of love with his colleague Julia, and as their relationship blossoms, his dislike of the Party intensifies. Things will not end satisfactorily.

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


Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Captain Ahab has a questionable vendetta against Moby Dick, who was responsible for separating one of his legs from the rest of his body. Aboard the Pequod with a motley crew, to put it mildly, Ahab goes whaling, seeing it as the embodiment of all that is evil in the world. A bit harsh, perhaps. It is narrated by Ishmael, a junior member of the Pequod’s crew, who presents the events as he saw them and is the subject of one of the most famous opening lines in literature, “Call tell me Ishmael”. Ahab becomes increasingly obsessed with his quest, offering a lot of money to the first person who spots Moby. Once spotted, Moby battles the Pequod for 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 top American novel.

JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit

Wasn’t it a movie starring Martin Freeman? Yes, but Bilbo Baggins walked so families like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones could run (and do magic, loot and loot). Bilbo and his friends go on a journey to win treasure guarded by a dragon named Smaug, after being tricked into throwing a party by Gandalf. Oh Gandalf, you are teasing. Beginning as shy and complacent – ​​at one point in the quest Bilbo is so frightened he passes out – his strength of character shines through. There is more to this hobbit at the end of the novel than meets the eye. Tolkien was inspired to write the novel while grading exam papers, and when it was finished he sent it to several friends, including local man C. S. Lewis.

What to say: It’s amazing that it’s never exhausted with adaptations receiving critical acclaim on their own merits.


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Former student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov lives in an attic in St. Petersburg and plans to commit a crime. He’s not quite sure what crime at first, but sure, what kind of murder of an unscrupulous pawnbroker and his sister between neighbors? 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 growing level of suspicion. Oh, and his sister and mother arrive in St. Petersburg, adding another layer of drama. There are a lot of threats, confessions and confessions, which are then used to bribe another in the marriage. Finally – and we’ve really narrowed the plot – Raskolnikov surrenders and is sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Siberia, excluding the other prisoners and the woman who actually loves him. Don’t worry though, he is finally able to accept and return her love. Oh.

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

JD Salinger’s Heart Catcher

Holden Caulfield recounts events that occur between the end of fall school terms and Christmas, when he was 16 years old. After learning he’s going to be expelled (this will be the fourth school he’s said goodbye to), he gets upset when his roommate, Stradlater, spends the evening with Jane, a girl Holden was dating. He decides to fly back to Manhattan a few days early, checking into the Edmont Hotel and people watching the guests. There’s a lot of going back and forth through New York, meeting old friends and friends and friends and, uh, people whose time you pay for, before he tries to sneak into the apartment. family. He tells his sister Phoebe, grumpy at being woken up, about 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 although it is clear at first that he is undergoing treatment in a hospital, Holden gives no information as to how this happened.

What to say: Salinger captures this delicate phase between adolescence and adulthood so well.

Killing a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Set in mid-1930s Maycomb, Alabama, the classic novel centers on six-year-old Scout Finch, who lives with his brother Jem and his lawyer father Atticus. Although 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 takes on the case, knowing he has little chance of winning, Scout and Jem, along with their new friend Dill, work to get their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley out of his house. Things get hotter and hotter as the town wants a say in Tom’s case. Expect violent scenes before, during and after the verdict, scenes that bring Jem and Scout into this dangerous world. That said, Scout finally gets to imagine what Boo’s life is like.

What to say: Mockingbirds are symbols of innocence in the novel, which references Atticus’ line that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird because it only does one thing but does music for us to enjoy”.


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 is set in Saint Petersburg, this time in 1805, as Napoleon’s fear of war sets in. Many 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 also does not work. Nikolay later witnesses the peace between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I. There is romantic rejection (a lot) before Napoleon invades Russia in 1812. Pierre is led to believe that 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 that war can oddly bring out the best and the worst in many.


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