I feel like this and this are really acts of preemption. See, if you accuse everyone of lying about how well read they are, you are effectively saving yourself from the position of ever meeting someone who is better read than you are. If someone makes such a claim, well, they're liars. It's a generalizing claim about something that is essentially impossible to disprove, and it invokes some of our most unfortunate urges: anti-intellectualism, reverse snobbery, solipsism. Yglesias and Olmstead are guilty of something I talked about in this article: asserting that others must have a failing as a way to avoid the implication of judgment of their own behavior. I know that Yglesias is specifically referring to some (unconvincing, to my mind) sociological data, but he's still making some pretty unfair claims.
Look: I am a very well-read person, or well read for a 27-year old, anyway. I try never to make that overbearing or to use that as an excuse to self-aggrandize. I think my more loyal readers can probably back me up on that. I just love reading, I always have, and consuming tons of whatever I could get my hands on as a child, I think, has been the most crucial element of my intellectual development. I was actually sociable and popular growing up, but I was also an intense reader, and reading was a deeply lonely activity. I know this is the most banal thought possible on the subject. But being someone who read constantly was always to feel like an outsider or a weirdo. It's not just that people didn't like to read themselves. It's that they had such an aggressive way of insisting that no one could really enjoy reading, that no one could find actual pleasure in challenging reading. Yglesias's comments thread has the inevitable "No one likes Ulysses!" snark going on. Well, I like Ulysses. It's fine if others don't. But what hurts is the suggestion that the only people who claim to like it or works of similar intensity are people who are lying to self-aggrandize. Yglesias and Olmstead take that one further by asserting that not only do most people who claim to enjoy it not enjoy, they must be lying about actually reading it-- an assertion it is almost impossible for an individual to disprove.
Well, no, I don't lie about how much I read. There's been many books I started to read and couldn't get through, and some I own that I've never even gotten the heart up to start. I know that a big reason I continue to read so much is that I have the privilege of the time to do so, which is a function of the personal and professional realities of my life. And, again, there's no judgment of people who aren't similarly addicted to books. I don't look down my nose at anyone who isn't into reading. I just want the right to love books as much as I do, and not to have people assume that my stated appetite for books is a lie intended to make me appear smart (I know how to pronounce Foucault!) or, bizarrely, to get girls. I like reading, I read voraciously, and if you don't, that's cool. I don't want to be too hard on Yglesias and Olmstead. But their posts make a lonely endeavor seem a little lonelier still.