I once heard a story about a college guy who wanted to impress these real bohemian college girls. He figured that the best way to do this was to carry around a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, then pretend to read it whenever they were around. By the end of the year, he had experienced nary a romantically offbeat conversation with any girls dressed in dark, droopy layers. Irritated that his brilliant plan didn’t work, he marched right on up to the head lady boho and demanded to know why they hadn’t taken notice of him. The girl looked at her friends and laughing said, “Sorry…you were reading the same book for a whole year. We thought you must be an idiot.”
The only book I’ve ever pretended to read in order to impress a guy was Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. The best part about pretending to read that particular book is that no one really understands it, so you can make up just about anything and relate it to the book. (I think. I mean, I still haven’t read it, but I watched the movie once, with the sound off, at a party, and it looked pretty weird.)
In high school, I didn’t lie about reading things to impress dudes, unless they were teaching the class. There were a lot of books I didn’t finish in high school, but I still made the honor roll every year. (People can say whatever they want about the decline of our educational system, but I would argue that it has been broken for quite a while now.) Why wasn’t I finishing books? Honestly, I didn’t need to. I was one of the rare lazy grade hounds, and what that meant for me was doing only the work I needed to do in order to get the best grades possible. If I could get by on reading only half of the book, and then kind of fill in the gaps with classroom chatter, then I could get by mostly on answering quiz questions with those kinds of roaming generalities that lazy, writerly kids are damn good at. (Conversely, I was terrible at multiple choice.)
Not finishing some classics has proven to be embarrassing at certain times, but overall, I think I’ve probably figured out – from context clues and what I know about the world – how they end. Here are some examples:
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
What happens in the book: Finny and Gene, New England boys at prep school during World War II, become friends despite their differences. During the year they get competitive. While standing on a branch above a lake together, Gene shakes the branch and Finny fall, shattering his leg. He will never play sports again. While Finny doesn’t believe that Gene did it on purpose, Gene knows he did, and grapples with this new self-knowledge. The students hold a pseudo-trial, presenting evidence that Gene intentionally caused Finny to fall.
Why I stopped reading: My teacher kept talking about fratricide, which irritated me because Finny obviously wasn’t dead. Also, I’m not a boy and I wasn’t rich, so what did I care about the lessons these rich boys were going to learn about themselves. Geez.
How I assume it ends: After proving Gene’s guilt to Finny, the students decide that the two boys – in order to prove which one is actually superior to the other – must fight to the death on the steep marble steps that Gene mentions at the beginning of the story. However, while Gene is taking his position, Finny pushes him down the stairs and Gene dies instantly. The group of boys are silently relieved, as they like Finny much more than Gene but knew that Finny would likely have lost the fight due to his broken leg. Together, they bury Gene’s body, making a dramatic blood oath to never tell anyone what happened. They explain to teachers of the school that Gene was actually a poor orphan, having lied about his status to gain entry into the school, but felt great disgrace at having lied to so many people of great esteem, so he ran away. The adults shrug, and the children smirk.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
What happens in the book: A seagull who hates his life as a seagull. So, he rediscovers his love of flight, and begins to fly everywhere, all the time. But, because he won’t just stick around and hang out with the other seagulls in his flock, they kick him out of their group and he lives as an outcast.
Why I stopped reading: It’s kind of depressing that I stopped reading it, because it’s a novella, and wouldn’t have taken that long to read. Anyway, there was a lot of talk about transcendence and being true to your self. This still makes me uneasy.
How I assume it ends: Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets up with another group of outcast gulls and they all begin to worship the Great Gull. They realize that they are outcast because they do not actually belong in the sky. They belong in the sea. They eat fish because they want to be closer to the sea. A date is chosen, and on that date, the flock of outcast gulls flies high into the sky, and then they relax, dropping into the ocean to their earthly deaths, but to live eternally as übergulls, each earning 29 virginal red breasted robins.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
What happens in the book: Everyone knows what this book is about. It’s not really about anything other than the teenage experience of Holden Caulfield, which, much like all teenage experiences is riddled with angst, anger and rebellion.
Why I didn’t finish it: Teenage anger, rebellion and angst? I was living it; I didn’t need a manual on how to be angrier, or more rebellious and angsty. Maybe it was an opportunity to show that I was more of any of those things than Holden.
How I assume it ends: Well, because I identified so well with Holden, I can only assume the book turned out okay. He probably ends up happy, with decent job. Maybe there’s a homemade tattoo he regrets, but all in all that’s not so bad. So, he probably married that Sally girl, right?
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
What it’s about: A young woman named Hester Prynne has come to America ahead of her elderly husband, who is tying up loose ends in Europe. While in America, Hester has a baby, which indicates that she’s been unfaithful to her husband. She won’t admit who her affair was with, and because her husband has not arrived yet (the town assumes he is lost at sea), she is made to wear a red A on her dress for “adultery.” It turns out that her husband actually does live in the town, but has been lying about his identity. He reveals himself to Hester and forgives her, but will not forgive her lover, although he doesn’t know who the lover is. We find out that her side piece is a minister in town named Arthur Dimmesdale, who gives himself away by getting sick because he’s all guilt-depressed. He burns the letter A into his chest.
Why I didn’t finish it: I don’t know. It was a downer. Early America was a rough place, especially for women. The story was bumming me out.
How I assume it ends: All of the men gather together, reveal who they really are, and then party by getting some hookers and cocaine. Hester is ridiculed until the end of her days. This isolation allows her the freedom to work at building a time machine. She succeeds and goes back in time, never marries her husband, then goes forward in time to 1990 and helps Madonna write and record Justify my Love.
Courtney Algeo feels much better, having come clean.