The Dangers of Elderspeak
How to Accept Our Aging Bodies – Part 1 of 2

Elder Reading Habits: Classic Novels

Yesterday The Guardian reported on a survey of 2000 members of the British public about their reading of classic novels. Sixty percent admitted to lying about having read books they had not read “to appear more intelligent.” In addition,

”...more than half of those polled [admitted to] displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they'd rather not be seen reading in public.”

According to a story in The Telegraph reporting on the same survey,

”...42 per cent of people rely[...] on film and TV adaptations, or summaries found online, to feign knowledge of the novels.”

It appears to me after ten years of feedback and conversation with readers of this blog, that many of us – probably a large majority – are regular book readers.

Maybe we have been so all our lives. Maybe reading became a lifelong habit because most of us grew up before television and certainly before the internet that take up so much time.

Or, maybe we have more time to read now that the kids are grown, many of us no longer work a full schedule and a lot of the responsibilities and obligations of midlife no longer apply.

With all that, the survey reported in these two feature stories left me wondering what our reading of classic novels is.

I can't recall that I've ever lied about having read something but maybe I'm wrong. Call me goody-two-shoes but in school, I never used Cliff Notes for reading assignments because – well, it was cheating and anyway, I have always liked to read.

However, there are plenty of books on my shelves that I haven't read or haven't finished reading but not to pretend to others that I've read them. These are books I might go back to some day. Or I might not but I don't consider shelving them a moral lapse.

The two newspapers published a list of the top ten books people surveyed claimed to have read but had not and it might be fun to see if we have read them. Here's the list with my comments in italic. I've read all but two and a third is – well, you'll see why my reading of it is iffy.

  1. 1984 by George Orwell (26%) I've read this three or four times most recently about six months ago.

  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%) One I've never finished. I've tried probably a dozen times and can't get past page 100. Yes, it still sits on my shelves and I'll probably give it another shot one day.

  3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%) I've read it twice. Except for Tale of Two Cities which was required reading twice in my school years, I discovered Dickens late in life – my 30s – and was completely caught up in all his novels.

  4. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%) I have no idea how anyone interested in American culture could skip this.

  5. A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%) I never even tried. Attempts to read other of Forster's work defeated me. I never could work up any interest in his writing.

  6. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%) All right, this is a special case. Yes. I read it. Back in the 60s. I was stoned through the entire book so I have no idea what it's about. I don't think that qualifies as reading and I have not (yet) tried it again.

  7. To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%) I keep going back to this book. I've lost count of the number of readings - it is a pleasure every time.

  8. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%) This was required in a high school class and I recall enjoying it. Not enough, I guess, to re-read it as an adult.

  9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%) As with Dickens, I came to Austen late in life – way late, in my 50s – and thanks to a couple of Austen-fan friends, worked my way through the oeuvre. They were fine but not enough that I understand the devotion Austen engenders.

  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%) This was a favorite childhood book; I read it then several times.

There is nothing more recent on this list than mid-20th century but I think they still hold up as part of the canon a well-rounded person should read at some time in life.

What's your take on all this? (By the way, comments about The Guardian story on this survey had reached nearly 1200 in 24 hours. Apparently, it struck a chord.)

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: What's the Fuss About?


Tolstoy: "W&P," too darn long.
Austen: Never felt the urge.
Others: Read 'em all.

Top least-favorite: Henry James. I'd rather eat broken glass.

Started reading at seven, working my way through everything I could lay my hanbds on. Still going strong.

I used to feel guilty if I diodn't like a "classic," and forced myself to finish.

Now. If it doesn't grab me by the first 10 or 16 pages, I toss it. Nothing to prove; no time to waste.

My brain must have been more damaged than most because many of the classics made no sense to me at all. Then again, in 1954 I became addicted to the Bronte's.

By the sixties my brain was able to process the best of the sci-fi of the considered classics, and just a short while later I discovered mysteries.

Now days, my sense of humor lets me not read those classics of any oeuvre that I cannot understand.

I agree with MarcL - War & Peace did not appeal not to mention the length.

I belong to 3 libraries so this is obviously a big joy for me.
Got a Kindle only for when I travel; less schlepping to do!!

One summer, many years ago, I struggled my way through War and Peace. I remember never getting into the story, but I wanted to be able to say I read it. I'm long, very long, past wanting to impress, and read what I want, especially mysteries that take place in NY.

Also, a bit off topic, but I hope everyone is watching Last Tango in Halifax on PBS.

I adore Jane Austin because she's really a comic writer - as a writing teacher of mine at Boston's Grub Street says, "She skewers everybody."

I've tried reading "Ulysses" several times and have given up. I hate it. I'm also not fond of anything F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, even "Gatsby," even though I know people who re-read it every year. Including that same writing instructor.

My sister-in-law says her mother told her that if she loved to read she'd never be alone, and that says it all.

Ah, yes, that old door stop, War and Peace. Not in my stacks, although, Like Ronnie, I did try. 1984, Animal Farm; they will be on my shelves forever. I get an Austen jag every once in a while, but there's just too much of everything I want to read in this world...I'll never get to 'em all. Dang.

6 out of 10 British - a pity there's no Steinbeck or Updike. Could never get into Lord of the Rings or War and Peace, but have read all the rest.

I feel antsy without a book (sometimes more than one ) on the go. A really rivetting one will find me preferring that to spending time on the PC.

Lately I've been enjoying older writers like May Sarton, Florida Scott Maxwell and Diane Athill whose recounting of their experiences at a great age seems more relevant to me now.

I was a voracious reader as a child and all the way through college. Read about half the books on the list. But once I got into editing full-time, reading for pleasure fell by the wayside. The last thing I wanted to do when I got away from work was read some more.

I think the reason more than half the authors mentioned are British is that the survey was done in Britain, right?

I have been a voracious reader all my life. Recently, faced with the fact that realistically I don't have that many more years left, I took stock and decided I needed to be doing what I truly love because it was now or never. Came to the conclusion that what I love is reading. And eating cake. LOL. Since I cannot eat all the cake that I would like, I am gorging myself on books.

I love those Russian authors and even E.M. Forster and Henry James but have never been able to go past the first few pages of an Austen book or the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/etc.

Since time is short I have been maximizing my book time by listening to audiobooks. It's a good way to "re-read" Dickens or any very long book.

To the commenter who mentioned Ulysses: I had tried for at least 50 yrs to read Joyce and Proust. Can't count the times I bought their books. Then suddenly this summer something clicked and I was able to get into both authors and truly enjoy their work. I am so glad I persisted.

Six out of ten, I've read. Didn't read the classics in school, I think Moby Dick was about it.

Hard list to crack, but no Hemingway? Have read nine of ten on the list, plus all of Papa's.Only recently got around to Jane Eyre. I thought it was excellent.

I confess to having read only three on the list: "1984," "Catcher" and "Pride and Prejudice". I admit to being an Austen junkie, and have read "Pride" several times, in addition to several pastiche versions and viewing various movie and TV adaptations. I can't explain it, although I suspect a strong attraction to Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet may be the underlying factor.

My neglect of so many of the classics is perhaps due to having seen movie versions of all, which I found sufficient. My reading obsessions are mysteries (especially the British "cozy" variety) and history (especially biographies), and there are just too many of each genre available for me to pass up.

Read 8 of them....can't handle the Russians, keeping all those names straight gives me a headache. The Brontes are goddesses in my book, I made a pilgrimage to their home in Yorkshire and slept overnight in the Black Bull Inn where their brother drank himself to death. Ah, romance.

I've read only four of them, tried "War and Peace," not sure I even made it through the first 100 pages. I did read "The Lord of the Rings" and have my 60's vintage hardbacks still. Does anyone remember those "Classic" comic books? Read a lot of those, ha, ha, including "Moby Dick."

6 of 10 here. I once told my mother that reading was like watching a movie in my head. She is not a reader, but encouraged me to read anything and everything.

As a child I read every biography in the children's section of our library - but only about women!

I am still laughing over your comment on # 6!

I must have read "Catcher in the Rye" at least 4-5 times. My was-band was crazy over "Lord of the Rings" and I tried to read it but just couldn't enjoy it. Slept through the films, too.

The "classic" I read over and over was "Little Women." Maybe not the greatest writing but I loved the story!

Read 'em all but did NOT enjoy all. At a young age I had this stupid compulsion that I HAD to finish what I started!
Not anymore--have a doubt , throw it out!
My eyes are definitely on the fritz so I have to really like a book to read it through.
Have become a mystery fan--in fact have joked that the police should call me in on a case or two!
One of my old favorites was anything by Daphne duMaurier--no not just Rebecca or Suspician--she really took you wherever the action was--so much fun!
Bravo for the Last Tango in
Halifax! And thanks for that comment about Henry James to
Marc--agree completely!

Me too - that awful compulsion to finish any book I began. It's been a long time since I finally figured out that it wasn't a rule. I wish I'd learned that earlier.

Your post brought to mind hollow books (yes!) that people lined their bookshelves with! Leather-bound "classics" that were unreadable because nothing was between the covers! And yet these volumes/homeowners undoubtedly impressed (some) visitors who wouldn't approach a book, real or hollow. A high school pal's parents had friends with such "classics." I never forgot their sad "library" probably because mine was a book-lined home with well-eared books. And I have remained a bookworm!


Postscript to the above.

When I was a child, my 93-year-old mother said, "books are your friends."

Indeed they are, and we've remained in touch, after all these years.

1984:Read several times
W&P-same experience as yours
Great Ex: read three or four times
Catcher:Three or four
Passage to India:two or three times and liked it :)
LOTR: first read it in the 60's, over a christmas holiday, straight through. I was in bed sick. A great way to read it, and I re-read it every so often as it is a comfortable old friend. Have read it many times, most recently this last spring.
Mocking Bird : Two or three times
Crime and Punishment: not sure... I started it but found it hard going. Do not think all that much of the Russian novelists I guess.
Pride and Prejudice:more than once but I do not adore it as some people seem to
Jane Eyre: yes! Many times
So, what does this say? i have always loved to read and we did not get a T V till after the Kennedy assassination when I was 14. I was shy and an only child. Reading was and still is my escape and solace.
I raed two or three books a week and watch little or no TV -just Netflix, so the apple doesn't fall far or something. I am still working as a music teacher but with a reduced load, so 3 days a week.
I have many books in my bookcases that I have not read but they are there because where else would they be, LOL?

I have read all but, A Passage to India (though I intend to), Pride and Prejudice, and Crime and Punishment. One I read, but found particularly hard going was Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Read all but Great Expectations and that is some kind of accident as I've enjoyed other Dickens.

My partner just got an audio copy of Middlemarch by George Elliot -- we admitted to each other we'd never read it despite it being one of a general sort of classics we've both read. She likes it a lot.

I am seldom daunted by length: one of my all time favorite books is Moby Dick, another under-read classic.

Lord of the Rings is a colossal bore made of poor writing. I read it only recently and was amused too see how much of it J.K. Rowling ripped off for the Harry Potter books. So THAT's how one becomes a billionaire!

I no longer read books. I will skim them at best.
I watch and listen to various news and financial shows. I have my computer on my lap for several hours a day and search, read, and skim. I don't know what happened--I used to read before the digital age. Films, aka, movies is also one of my pastimes.
I think reading looks like a great pastime, I just cannot do it any longer. My loss.

You should see what they are selling these days to all those people with McMansions to fill their 'built-ins'; books of every color scheme and leather binding to look authentic and match their couch. I thought hollow books were for hiding one's booty?

I was "forced" to read the classics whilst in Elementary school and after, as I was in advanced programs. I dreaded the wait to hear what was next on the list, and I always waited until the last minute to read through them.

All I wanted to read was Science Fiction, with some ancient Greek or Roman mythology as per Homer thrown in. Yes, I did read the Hobbit but none of the tower books. I read tons of science, history, and other non-fiction. I never used Cliff notes and never lied about what I had read.

I feel a bit like the book police are watching me now as I don't have the patience to read much these days other than an occasional Malcolm Gladwell book or other non-fiction.

Yes:1, 2, 3, & 10; No:4, 5,9; Probably, can't swear to it: 6, 7, 8. I do remember reading most of Dickens, many Conrad, all Michener, and several Hemingway plus *Ivanhoe*. These days I'm into the mystery genre. I think my attention span has been shortened and I'm too distractible for heavier reading. I've rarely read a book more than once and move too often to lug books, so bookshelf these days is electronic. I can download both audio and print books from my library. How cool is that?

Agreeing with those who recommend the BBC series "Last Tango in Halifax" on PBS. If you missed the first episode, you can see it online at I'm not sure when other channels are airing it, but KCTS9 (Seattle) has it on Sundays at 8:00 p.m...just started on Sept. 8th.

I repeated 3 grades in school because of math. Reading was my refuge.

Like Marc, I read all the books on the list above, and as an English teacher, I shared a long list of book room classics with my students.

Mom and I hit the library every week. She taught me to love reading.

I almost burned the house down as a kid while reading into the night.

I put a felt poodle skirt over my reading lamp so my father would think I was fast asleep.

But no. I was reading.

I am a confirmed reader from way back. My mother used to tell me to put sown that book and go out and play. My husband was the same way,but he had a much better memory for what he read.

I've read all except A Passage to India (saw the movie) and Catcher (don't like the sound of it).
I've always been an avid reader and read W&P voluntarily while at school. After all this time, I can only think of Woody Allen's famous joke about speed-reading - it's about Russia! I think it was soon after that I decided I didn't have to finish every book I started.
And personally I'd put George Eliot (Middlemarch) ahead of Dickens (twee excerpts in school readers) and Brontes.

I have read most of your list but missed the Austin/Dickens era and don't plan on reading it at this late stage.

I certainly do have a lot of books that I haven't read on my shelves, in fact I have a whole bookcase of books I intend to read. Most of them came from book sales and will be read, some I'll lose interest in and donate elsewhere. I give away books once I've read theme except art books and ones I think I'll need for reference some day.

For the past couple of years our library has been shelf-cleaning and selling their overages 3 for a dollar during August. I buy 12 or 15 and read them during the winter. I have to dig through a lot of "pop" novels and mysteries as I look for books by non-American authors that I won't find remaindered in bookstores. Often these are authors I don't know but sometimes even Nobel winners. I find myself reading very few American novels; I feel I know American life after 70 years but can learn a lot about the culture of another country by reading a good novel written by a native. At my age. when I cannot travel as I once did, this is traveling in a very intimate way.

Surprisingly, I have only read three of the list and only one more than twice (Lord of the Rings). I think I started a couple of the others and never finished them. Over the last few years I came to a couple of conclusions. First, more books are published than I can possibly read. Second, not all of the so called classics are really worth the trouble to read them. Third, I don't feel much obligation to read or even finish everything out there. Often lately I read a reference to a book I remember reading many years and for the life of me I can't remember what they are about. I read what I want now and only as much as interests me.

Have not read 2, 5, 6, or 8 - at least, not that I recall.

After slogging through The Gulag Archipelago many years ago, I thought that I could take on anything. Alas, Ulysses got the better of me. I quit at about the 1/4 or 1/3 mark. (I felt that I needed tp bathe after each page.)

Sci Fi was my favorite genre, for many years; but, fantasy leaves me cold (thus, I've not read Lord of the Rings.)

Have read maybe half on your list, that I remember! I read for entertainment now (mysteries), alternating with a 'thinking' book, tho believe I get something out of most books, including hearty laughs or a flash of remembrance or a racing heart. I cheated and had others write reports for book evaluations in school, having no patience for the classics. Prefer reading about the American Indians.
So many good book ideas - now I'll reconsider those classics or reread some old favorites as LOTR. I believe it will be with different views and feelings, as my visions have changed and this adds to love of reading, even as a book hits the out box after a few chapters.

another life time reader here; have read all those but #5...every year I try to work in a classic which to me is old many books to read now that I have a big shelf waiting...and had to start a 2nd blog just to track my books, because I felt reading is so important to me, I'd not confine it to now and then on my main blog.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)