Black and white and read all over?

By Juliana Adelman

You may recall the controversy a couple of years ago when the French academic, Pierre Bayard, published a book in which he claimed to deliver lectures on books he had never read.  How to talk about books you’ve never read purported to advise the ‘chattering classes’ on how to maintain literary pretensions.  If you read the fine print, Bayard says that he writes through a fictional character: he never actually admitted to being what he called a ‘nonreader’.  Nonetheless, he struck a nerve and the book became a bestseller in French and English.  A number of related articles and surveys have appeared, which seem to demonstrate that lots of people routinely lie about what they have and have not read.  A piece in the Guardian, for example, looked at an English survey that found 42% of respondents had falsely claimed to have read George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four.  Why ignorance of this particular book is so embarassing to English people, I cannot quite grasp.

Anyway, we in Pue’s were discussing a similar subject of late and wondering what books in Irish history were read a lot less frequently than they were either purchased or discussed.  Some of us have had the experience of reading an oft-discussed text only to discover it did not appear to say much of what others seemed to remember that it did.   Leading us to of course conclude that many people had not read the text in question, merely repeated what they had heard or had read in other books.  See, we academics didn’t need to read Bayard’s book.  We’re already experts in talking about things we haven’t read.  What is it that makes a book a classic, though?  Is it the actual content, or is it the popularity of the few sentence summary that everyone remembers?

We came up with the following list of books people interested in Irish history and culture may or may not have read.  Of course, none of us are admitting that WE haven’t read them.  Dear me, no.  We wonder what other books might go on our list.  Please make suggestions.

1. Roy Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972

2. Diarmid Ferriter, Judging Dev

3. Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland

4. Joep Leerssen, Mere Irish and Fior Ghael

5. F. S. L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine

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10 Responses to “Black and white and read all over?”

  1. Ronan L Says:

    “Our War: Ireland & the Great War” will no doubt soon make these lists.
    A more specialised book in the same vein might be “Heroic Option”, where I learnt that by the mid-1800s, the Irish were the most numerous nation in the “British” Army, which kinda jars a little with what we were taught in the school books!

  2. eejoynt Says:

    “Aisling Géar” by the late Breandán Ó Buachalla – the definitive book on the seventeenth century

    “Lockout”by Padraig Yeates the title undersells it – its not just labour history but a survey of Dublins Social History before the First World War

    “in Time of War” by Robert Fisk – a classic on Anglo Irish relations in the 1939 1945 priod

    none of the above were written by mainstram historians

  3. Frank Says:

    Let me add a few more titles to the list of books that may be cited without having been read.

    Ireland 1912-1985 Joe Lee
    Ireland 1798-1998 Alvin Foster
    Ireland: a Social and Cultural History 1922-1985 Terence Brown
    (I know it’s been updated but how many people have actually read the original edition?)
    Elections, politics, and society in Ireland, 1832-1885 KT Hoppen
    Making Ireland British 1580-1650 Nicholas Canny

  4. Ciara Says:

    I suspect there was probably a phase in the 90s when many claimed to have read Tim Pat Coogan’s biography of Collins after the film came out and the book was republished with ‘now the subject of a major film’ across its cover.

  5. Patrick Says:

    Frank, Some good shouts there, and those who haven’t read Terence Brown (and the original too!) should; as it’s to my mind the best one volume history of twentieth century Ireland.

    In the Irish sphere I would also give a shout out for Lecky and Froude’s monumental nineteenth century histories of eighteenth-century Ireland, and indeed their twentieth century successor The New History of Ireland, although I know a colleague who has read all 9 volumes, making him i suspect unique!

    I wonder should we broaden this list out beyond Irish history to include much referred to but often little read classics like Braudel’s Mediterranean (which I haven’t read!) and E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (which I have).

    Also I wonder should we also try and commpile a list of books unjustly forgotten and under-read and referred to….the paths not taken if you will?

  6. Don Draper Says:

    Given the amount of heat it generated you would think thousands have read Peter Hart ‘The IRA and its Enemies’. I’m not sure they have. Diarmaid Ferriter’s ‘The Transformation of Ireland’ – did many really read it? Foster’s Ireland certainly, its a long time since anyone waded through that.

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Good call on Hart’s book. I’ve had more than one conversation about this book that ended with the other party admitting that in spite of their vitriolic hatred for what’s between its covers, they hadn’t quite managed to read any of it.

      The same is probably true of Foster’s last book, Luck and the Irish, which I once heard someone slate for 25 minutes before admitting – albeit only when prompted – that they hadn’t read it but based their opinion on the reviews!


      PS I have read both Of those books, in case anyone’s keeping score.

  7. Póló Says:

    I have only read 2 of the books mentioned so far: 1984 and FSL Lyons. It was Lyon’s appendix on the North that gave me my first understanding of the Unionist siege mentality and how any of us could fall into it.

  8. patrick maume Says:

    I have read all the five listed books, but I don’t think I have re-read them since they came out – and that’s an important point, becauase when you re-read a book after several years of study and experience, you’re always shocked to realise how much you missed first time. (Of course you also see things the author missed which have since been writen about and realise the extent to which this is a book of its time.)
    I’m surprised at IRELAND SINCE THE FAMINE being listed as never-read, given that it was a set leaving Cert text for my generation in the early 1980s.

  9. Póló Says:

    Patrick Maume makes an interesting point about the difference between a first and subsequent read of a book. I first read “The Irish and Catholic Power” by Paul Blanshard when studying in UCD in the mid 1960s. The book was considered so dangerous that you had to get a letter from your tutor to present to the librarian who would then release the book to you.

    On a first read I was intrigued by the facts revealed about the status and intolerance of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, but I thought the book’s style was unnecessarily abrasive and carping. On a reread, some forty years later, I found it to be a model of moderation, well argued and well referenced.

    Needless to say it was me who had changed in the meantime.

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