Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The cardinal sin of the academic

I like to think of myself as a world-class literary faker. In second grade, in order to win some kind of certificate, I let everyone believe I had reached the end of an epic novel called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, when in fact its heroes had barely even met their first sentient fungi. I solidified this reputation one day in high-school English class, when, in answer to our teacher’s impossible question about an Ibsen play we hadn’t been assigned to read, I shouted, in a voice of casual authority, “Ghosts!” When this turned out to be correct (I had picked a random title from the list on the back cover of A Doll’s House), my classmates looked at me as if I’d spoken the secret of the universe, and they assumed I was fluent in Norwegian, and started whispering when I passed in the hall. A decade of college and grad school—boot camps of strategic fakery—immeasurably deepened my arsenal: Today I’m proficient in such feints as the stretched truth (“It’s funny, I’ve never actually finished that,” I’ll volunteer about War and Peace, of which I’ve read only the first paragraph), the misdirection (“Have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?” “You know what’s always bothered me about Pynchon?”), and, on very rare occasions, the enthusiastic flat-out lie (“Did you finish Brideshead Revisited?” “Yes! Yes, I really did!”). My signature move is a mildly orgasmic “Mmmmm,” which manages to suggest several things simultaneously: agreement, disagreement, ambivalence, and above all that my familiarity with the book in question is so deep it’s become muscular and sub-verbal, less a literary opinion than the visceral appreciation of a jaguar for the dawn.
—Sam Anderson, Review of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

3 comments:

WTM said...

I sincerely and deeply deplore these and like practices.

kim fabricius said...

Hi David,

Woody Allen said that 80% of life is showing up. I reckon the other 20% is to speak like you know what you're talking about and to act like you know what you're doing. Most idiots can even mange it. Except the President.

Kevin said...

Dave, you outed yourself here. I will be listening for the "mmmmm" next time I talk to you