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Dickens makes you a dick

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JULY 14, 2014

“Oh, Victor Hugo? I love him, he’s really great!”

I met a friend of a friend named Edna a while ago, and when I heard her say that, I was extremely excited, because I’m currently making my way through some of his work and I have a casually unhealthy obsession with “Les Miserables” — both the musical and the book. I like Hugo, and when I start talking about something I like, I go all out.

So I started telling her about how my favorite character is this one character who’s kind of obscure and shows up a grand total of about 10 times, and how Cosette is an actual Disney princess, and what I thought about Hugo’s rambly sort of style and whether anything might have been lost in translation, and so on. None of my close friends like Hugo or have read Les Mis or actually seen the musical, so I was starved for someone to share my fandom with.

Throughout the conversation, Edna nodded and smiled a lot, but she didn’t say much, just things like “yeah” and “I think so, too.” I didn’t realize until after I’d left that she hadn’t actually said anything about Hugo or Les Mis, except to say that she thought some bits of the book were boring. When questioned about which parts, she just hadn’t answered.

So I thought that maybe I’d just talked at her too much and she just hadn’t wanted to say anything. I get that I can talk too much, especially when I get excited. Case closed.

But later, when I mentioned talking about Hugo and Les Mis with the friend who’d introduced us, the friend was really surprised, because apparently, Edna didn’t like reading and hated anything to do with classics, much less a book the size of Hugo’s brick.

I was hurt. Well, not really. But I was definitely irritated enough to sit back and think a bit. It turned out that Edna had stayed there and let me talk at her about one of my favorite books because it had made her feel smart. I just felt stupid afterward.

Point is, there are actually a lot of people like Edna out there who suffer under a delusion like hers. Famous, classic literature is one of those default conversation topics that people bring up if the conversation — or themselves — need a bit of polish or culture or whatever. That’s senseless.

Why should talking about Hugo make Edna feel more intelligent? Why is Edgar Allan Poe a more cultured conversation topic than, say, Ke$ha? Why talk about Shakespeare instead of Stephenie Meyer; why talk about Homer instead of E.L. James?

People think that it requires above-average intelligence to understand classic literature, and I guess being cultured is all about sounding smart. Classics may be more complex than some modern stuff, but they’re still stories that are understandable and enjoyed by people who aren’t English professors. Odysseus makes it home to Penelope despite having to trawl through literal seas of monsters. Pip starts as a humble kid, turns into a pretentious young man and regains his humility and cool at the end. Elizabeth Bennet meets a jerk called Mr. Darcy who eventually pulls his head out of his ass and becomes a nice guy.

It’s all understandable, even if the language style is somewhat archaic. Stories are stories. Classic literature isn’t something convoluted, like theoretical physics calculations or science.

Name-dropping famous authors that you don’t actually know or read or love in a conversation actually reflects negatively on your intelligence, because eventually, if you talk to someone who actually knows his or her shit, the impression you make isn’t a very good one. You come off as pretentious at best and as an Edna at worst.

Please don’t fake having read books then pretend to discuss them with people who love them. There’s not much point to trying to talk famous literature for the sake of “sounding smart.” Talking about things you know instead of things you don’t usually end up sounding a whole lot better, and then, you could even avoid being stuck in conversations with nerds like me on a book you’ve never read. If you really do only live once, you’ve got better things to talk about and better things to do with your time.


Contact Helen Wong at 


JULY 15, 2014