Of romance novels and Romanovs …

On the radio this morning, there was a conversation about books people say they’ve read when they haven’t.  Moby Dick, for example.  Apparently, there are a lot of books that don’t get read that we want other people to think we have read.  Ok, yes, I guess I can imagine it: you’re at a party and you don’t want to be left out of the conversation on The Kite Runner, but I wouldn’t have thought it was a hugely common thing.  The media keep telling us that books are dead, so it’s curious that anyone would be lying about having read one.  And the reasons for lying surprise me too.  Apparently, there are men who lie for sex.  I really want someone to explain that one to me!

Though I have yet to make sense of any of this, it did inspire today’s memoir:

At 18 I had my first real job (not that baby sitting and being a camp counselor weren’t hard work, but they were fun and didn’t feel like jobs … the paper route was work, but I was only doing the collections while my brother had the hard slog of actually making the deliveries, so it didn’t feel like it was really my job … whatever).  I was living at my aunt’s house on the Hudson for the summer and the job was in the South Bronx.  I had to take three long bus rides to get there.

I was fresh off my first year of college and was ridiculously, pompously arrogant about my brilliance while at the same time having a mid-life crisis because I was already 18 and hadn’t achieved anything in my life.  I think these things are worth mentioning because both are surely responsible for my decision to read War and Peace during my commute.¹ 

One afternoon, in the middle of my second bus, some guy sidled up to me.  No, really, he sidled.  It wasn’t something I thought people actually did until that day.  He slid into the seat beside me and leaned in to breathe in my ear, “Are you reading a romance novel?”

I looked at him with something that I hoped resembled the Face of Beligerance my mother and sister are so good at.  I held my book up so he could see what I was, in fact, reading.  I waiting a beat, two beats.

He slid away from me and sat somewhere else!

That was a glorious lightbulb moment. I could send smarmy men packing just by reading (look down your nose and sniff) SERIOUS LIT ‘ RATURE.  Now, like any good scientist, I didn’t just assume my hypothesis was fact.  I experimented.  I tried out my flash-the-book-jacket theory over the next week, and it worked every time.  Result!

I loved War and Peace.  Really loved it.  It was huge and small at the same time, so full of story lines and people and drama.  A rollercoaster ride that kept me turning the pages.

When I finished it, I didn’t feel like reading anything else right away.  I wanted time to think about it, to let it sift through my brain a little without some new story line getting in the way.  But I also wanted to keep the protective field that Leo’s opus had created around me.  What to do?

For a while, I kept the book with me, going back and re-reading sections, but that got old quickly.  So I went back to the bookshelf and came away with Ulysses.  I wasn’t ready to read anything new, and (for all my storied brilliance) wasn’t ready for Joyce, but no matter.  I had no intention of reading the book.  I just carried it around.²

Yes, it’s true.  I used Ulysses like pepper spray.  And once again, let me assure you: it worked.  My rides were uninterrupted for the rest of the pitiful few weeks I kept that lousy job!³  I never lied about having read Ulysses, however.  The lie would have ruined my story, so what would have been the point?


¹  Reading War and Peace was the slow-starting spark of the can’t-get-enough-of-the-Russians phase I went through a few years later, leading me through Tolstoy, Dostoyevky and Solzhenitsyn, eventually moving on to Nabokov (everything but Lolita, for the sake of full disclosure) and blurring lines by reading Darkness at Noon years later during my can’t-get-enough-of-show-trials-and-Soviet-power-struggles phase.

²  When I finally did read it — the summer before my second year of grad school — I found that, rather than repel conversations with strangers, it attracted them!  Not so many smarmy men that go-round, but lots of people felt perfectly comfortable questioning me about the book, from folks sitting opposite me on the subway to a postal worker selling me stamps.

³  How have I not written a memoir about this job?  I’ll have to start working on that for next week!





are hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.


9 thoughts on “Of romance novels and Romanovs …

  1. I ran across this same list of books on a Facebook questioneer. I must admit that I read fifteen of the books, but only because most of them were assigned school reading.

    And as for the men lying for sex; I would never give “it” up to a man who has not read Moby Dick!


  2. Tracey

    I’d like to participate in the War and Peace conversation, but I’d be lying if I said I’d read it. I have read Moby Dick, though, really. Really.


  3. literacyspark

    “One afternoon, in the middle of my second bus, some guy sidled up to me. No, really, he sidled. It wasn’t something I thought people actually did until that day. He slid into the seat beside me and leaned in to breathe in my ear, “Are you reading a romance novel?””

    HA! I laughed out loud.

    BTW I replied to your question about Donorschoose on my blog comments but here is the website again-



  4. What a great post. I had the summer of Russian authors about 12 years ago. However, in a one horse town you usually don’t read around others (you’re driving)!


  5. I loved this post! It’s got me thinking about books I’ve “lied” about reading. For a job interview, I said I’d read The Odyssey (Not!). Now I’ve taught it so much I have it memorized…


  6. Thanks, ladies! I really shouldn’t be so surprised that there are so many people fibbing about reading. If you count the literature and history classes I took freshman year, I pretended to have read at least half of them! (Including Moby Dick, of which I only managed about 150 pages.) The idea that anyone would be lying about reading in the hopes of hooking up with someone is still pretty amazing to me, though!


  7. I love this. Using great books to get rid of people. Using books period to do this job. Awesome. I do this in restaurants but its usually massmarket fiction that I use to ignore people.

    Russian phase – I did this in high school and believe the phase is going to repeat itself this year as I want to do something with Russian Lit for my senior project. Any suggestions for the first read?


  8. I saw ‘Romanovs’ in the title of this post and squealed! I LOVE the Romanovs. Have you read Nicolas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie? Another excellent Russian book — We the Living by Ayn Rand.

    Ulysses as pepper spray. Brilliant!


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