"A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."
Mainstream Obscurity is what happens to a work when it lands on pretty much every critic's top 10 list, has fantastic word of mouth on many amateur review sites, and is one of the most truly well-known works in media, yet only two in any random ten people have actually seen it. Oh, sure, the facts about the work are so well known that a lot of people might think
they've seen it, or might even feel they don't have to see it
, but the number of people who have actually experienced it is pretty low comparatively.
When the work has become so famous that "everybody else knows about it"- yet no one has actually read or seen the work, that work is
wallowing in Mainstream Obscurity. If the work is considered True Art
, and True Art Is Incomprehensible
, sometimes people assume that the work will be way over their heads, so they don't even bother.
Even university students studying the subject in question don't read many "classic" works for research. Many philosophical and sociological tomes are dense defenses of their theory and rebuttals to critics. Reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason
front-to-back, for example, is not only time-consuming, but possibly more confusing than reading an informed summary. Explanation
Furthermore, those studying the "pure" sciences or technology will usually never be called upon to look at any seminal scientific works at all
, simply because Science Marches On
. Not only will the material and conclusions have been repeated, refined and summarised in all of the later books on the subject, but later research will have filled in gaps in the work, pointed out errors and highlighted new areas of study.
People, groups and entire genres can also be swallowed by Mainstream Obscurity. A "famous author" can be widely read, best-selling but largely unread, widely quote-mined or just well known for "being an author".
Iconic movie stars have their image reproduced in so many other places that it is easy to recognise their faces without having to ever watch any of the movies they starred in.
Likewise, people can be widely aware of an artistic movement or genre, but unable to describe what it was about, or name any artists or works from it.
It should also be noted that there is a danger in assuming that because they
haven't read/watched/heard a work, that no one else has. Likewise, one should not assume that a work is more famous than it actually is.
The reverse of Fan Myopia
. Often happens when a Cult Classic
becomes so well known for being a cult classic (due to Popcultural Osmosis
) that the cult classic becomes mainstream. This can of course lead to Adaptation Displacement
and Beam Me Up, Scotty!
. See also Praising Shows You Don't Watch
, where people, well, do exactly that
. Some of these can also be well-known for historical controversy
. See also Small Reference Pools
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Anime & Manga
- Studio Ghibli:
- Spirited Away seems to be pretty well-known since the Oscar win. Still seems to be eternally waiting around on people's Netflix queues.
- Grave of the Fireflies is a famously brutal depiction of the horrors of war, conveniently explaining why no one ever gets around to watching it.
- Osamu Tezuka is considered the "God of manga." However there are many people (including anime fans) who know of his legacy and works, but have never read any of them; especially Astro Boy, who is one of, if not the most recognizable manga characters of all time (and the first one to have a successful mainstream anime adaptation).
- Neon Genesis Evangelion, despite the heaps of praise placed on it, is rarely actually watched, with many supposed fans unable to even name any characters, and is rather hard to find. Rebuild of Evangelion has brought it back into the realm of "things people have actually seen," but the original is still very difficult to find legally, making claims that They Changed It, Now It Sucks difficult to verify.
- Digimon is well-known as Pokémon's rival seriesnote - and that's about it. It's rather impressive to be able to even name one Digimon, much less several.note
- Bokurano is well known as "Evangelion but even more depressing", along with being very philosophical, but few people have actually seen or read it.
- This trope even works in Japan: Ghost in the Shell was met with critical acclaim in Europe and the USA, yet in Japan not so much. So it's no surprise that when Japanese actually talk about it, praising it about it's greatness so they can associate with westerners, they might admit to have never actually seen the movie.
- If you ask any random person on the street to name a superhero most could at least identify Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other well known heroes but how many non-comic geeks have actually read any comics about any of these iconic superheroes? Sure, part of their success is from screen adaptations, (especially Superman and Batman), but they're still best known as comic book characters through and through, aren't they?
- Media adaptations of comic book and comic strip heroes often feature animated openings or montage shots of comic books (e.g. the 1980 Flash Gordon film featured shots of the Alex Raymond strips), so that explains this knowledge of the native medium for many of these properties. By contrast, has any Zorro film featured a shot of Zorro's first cover appearance in Argosy All-Story Weekly, a prose magazine?
- Relatedly, everyone has the same general concept for the storylines of the heroes, but said concept is stuck somewhere in the 1970s to 1980s. For example:
- Ask anyone on the street who Robin is, and if they know at all, it'll be Dick Grayson, who's been Nightwing for the last 30 years. They'll likely be completely unaware that there's been up to five other Robins since then, depending on which comics you're talking about.
- They'll know that Lois Lane is Clark Kent's friend and Superman's girlfriend who has no idea they're one and the same, unaware that they've been married for some time, and that Lois knows Clark's secret.
- Unless they've been in a coma for a decade or two, they'll know who Batman is. But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone outside the hardcore fandom who knows that he now has a ten-year-old son.
- They'll probably be familiar with Spiderman, but they probably won't know that he and Mary Jane are no longer together, or that MJ was actually his fourth girlfriend.
- They'll probably at least be aware of Green Lantern, but probably won't know that there are now lantern-themed characters for every color in the rainbow.
- It was particularly notable when the Justice League TV show was launched in 2001 using John Stewart as the Green Lantern. People were all upset about them changing Green Lantern for a black man out of Political Correctness. People didn't know that the character was nearing 30 years old, having taken up the ring in the 70s. Which, due to the popularity of the Justice League show, led to a large number of people confused by the Green Lantern trailer, wanting to know why Green Lantern wasn't black!
- Ancillary merchandise actually helps in this matter greatly, keeping these properties that rarely make the best-seller lists of books in the public eye. Go into a discount store, Wal-Mart, etc. and look for the tie-in items such as coloring books, plastic cups, ice cream, etc. In the case of Superman and perhaps Dick Tracy (actually a comic strip hero, which made him less restricted in access) and a few others, cut rate DVD copies of public domain films and shorts from the 1930's and 1940's also help.
- One coloring book about the X-Men, released in the late 80's, advertised the team of being made up of Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and "Ariel" (Kitty Pryde, most commonly known as Shadowcat). This line-up was in place for about a year in the very early 80's.
- The Onion uses this as the joke in a TV spot about the Green Lantern.
- If you ask a random person who the quintessential Avengers are, you'll probably be told Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and...the Hulk. Not so fast on that last one, there. Yes, he's rejoined the team in recent comics published after the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but unless you're a reader you likely don't know that prior to that the Hulk was a member of the team for exactly two issues, and unlike other team members did not rejoin for over 40 years after quitting. These same people also tend to believe that Captain America was a founding member of the team.
- A weird reversal of this occurred when The Avengers was released. A large number of fans believed that the film was odd for not featuring Wolverine or Spider-Man, even saying it's not the Avengers without them. Despite the fact that they were largely the two Marvel heroes most recognizable to the general public, both of them had only been full-time Avengers since 2005, and in fact a good 40 years of Avengers history barely included either of them (Spider-Man became a reserve member in the early 90's but was rarely used unless all team members were being called in).
- Any true fan of comic books as a genre can tell you that Maus is a brilliant, powerful treatise on the Holocaust using cats and mice as stand-ins for Nazis and Jews—all while never seeming the slightest bit childish or reductive. Most true fans of comic books can also tell you that they really mean to get around to reading Maus some day.
- The Barry Allen version of The Flash is widely credited with kicking off The Silver Age of Comic Books in 1956 but for most of the actual Silver Age he was never a top seller - through out the 1960s all of the Superman stable outsold him by very heavy margin, with even the spinoff Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane titles selling nearly twice as many copies per year.
- While the New Gods are not exactly mainstream, they are certainly this among American superhero comic fans. Many people have praised the characters and the story's ambitious nature, yet never seem to have actually read the original comics. (Granted, it took a long time for them all to be collected).
- Matt Groening's Life in Hell strip, an obscure precursor to his more famous offerings. Most Simpsons fans know it exists, or can at least recognize the art style, but far fewer could name any characters or state what it's about. This is lampshaded in one of the comics, where Groening meets a fan who claims to love all his work, but doesn't even recognize Life in Hell.
- Many of the iconic newspaper comic heroes of the 20th century fall into this category:
- Krazy Kat is a cat who gets zipped with a brick by a mouse. Most comic book fans know this, but how many people have actually read these comics of an acquired taste?
- Little Nemo In Slumberland: Everyone knows the scene where his bed is flying thru the night or that he falls out of bed in the final panel, but how many people beyond that have ever read the stories?
- Citizen Kane is famous for being "the greatest film of all time." Everyone knows the "Rosebud" scene and the big twist at the end, but not very many people have actually sat down to watch it. The fact that it is a very old, black-and-white classic tends to put people off, and the fact that it's so acclaimed by critics tends to make some people assume that it's a boring, stuffy, impenetrable work, or refuse to watch it out of Hype Aversion. In truth, it has a simple, classical "rise and fall" character arc and its then-innovative camerawork is now commonplace, so it suffers from Seinfeld Is Unfunny rather than incomprehensibility.
- The Godzilla films are a particularly good example of this. Due to pop culture status (as well as being one of the biggest movie franchises of all time), it's safe to assume that the majority of people actually know who Godzilla is. That being said, however, try asking someone who isn't a die-hard fan to name at least one Godzilla film and see what happens. Even fans of the genre might not realize that the original Gojira was a dark somber allegory rather than a cheesy "monster on the loose" film, since its original American release as Godzilla (with Raymond Burr) was recut to be exactly that. A subtitled release of the film the Japanese saw back in the 1950s was not available to Americans until this century.
- It doesn't help that, due to Western media's overbearing popularity, not to mention accessibility, over Japanese productions, a lot of people are only familiar with the 1998 American remake (which, while mostly hated in its native country, was actually quite successful in international markets) and have little to no idea that the franchise in reality originated from Japan and has had a firm fanbase way before that movie. This was mitigated a bit with the release of the more recent American film — at least in that more people know about its roots, not that they would actually want to watch any of the "shoddy Asian rubber monster movies".
- Many Academy Award-nominated films are like this, particularly ones nominated for Best Picture. The titles and (usually) the premises become known in the American conscious when they're nominated, and yet, few people living in the US can say they've seen more than a couple, maybe even any. This results in many people buzzing about films they have never seen, and probably never will, and this carries on into a new batch of films the following year as the previous winners and nominees are largely forgotten. This is especially true now that the Academy nominates more little-known Oscar-bait films instead of the popular Blockbusters the American public is more likely to have seen.
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Pop culture status has made it so that mainstream audiences are somewhat familiar with the basics of the film. That, and, playing the Time Warp every Halloween helps. However, again, ask someone who isn't a fan what the plot of the movie is. Most likely, the answer you'll get is, "Tim Curry in drag." The Audience Participation within the film also counts. Sure, people in general know you're supposed to use props and yell certain lines when watching the movie. But, ask anyone who isn't a die hard fan what you're supposed to say and when.
- Chances are more than good that about 80% of self-described "Star Wars fans" have only seen the six live-action theatrical releases, or in many cases, only the initial three. They might be vaguely aware that there are upteen-thousand novels, comics, resource books, animated series/movies, video games, RPG's, online stories and virtually any other type of media you can think of, but even then, they likely have no idea that all of it was considered canon, or at least, was, until J. J. Abrams declared that he was only treating the live-action theatrical films as canon when he began filming Episode VII.
- How many people have actually seen Soylent Green? But everyone knows that it's made of people.
- The Seventh Seal is frequently referenced, parodied and the Trope Namer for Chess with Death, but is watched about as frequently as Citizen Kane.
- The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Murder, My Sweet are all famous for being noir classics, but few people have seen them these days. "The stuff that dreams are made of" has even been used in jewelry commercials. Considering the context, this is either one big face palm or hilarious to those who have seen the film.
- Most people will know Eraserhead is one of the most creepy, Mind Screwy films ever and has a guy with a weird electrified hairstyle in it, but won't have a clue about what happens in the movie. Of course, even people who have seen it couldn't really tell you much of what it's about, because, again, Mind Screw.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space - is the most famous cinematic example of So Bad, It's Good.
- The Birth of a Nation. Unfortunate Implications aside, it's monochrome, silent, shot at a jerky 16 frames per second, and 190 minutes long. Clips from it, and references to those clips, crop up all over the place, but few have the staying power to watch it from end to end.
- Though 2001: A Space Odyssey is consistently considered a film classic, and most people recognize the calming red orb of HAL9000 and will quote him on command, relatively few have the patience to sit through one of the slowest and most boggling movies ever made.
- On an individual level, James Dean's career. He's one of the most iconic images of America, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's watched Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, or Giant — and even more hard-pressed to find someone who realises that those three films are his entire movie career.
- Everyone knows who Marilyn Monroe was, what she looked like, and that a grate blew up her dress once, but how many people under 30 have actually seen her films? One of those, Some Like It Hot, is often brought up as one of the greatest film comedies — in fact, an American Film Institute list in 2000 named it the funniest movie ever — but it's rarely talked up otherwise unless a reviewer is making comparisons between it and any other comedy in which the main characters masquerade as the other gender.
- Can you describe what one of Shirley Temple's films was about without saying something like, "Well, she sang 'Animals Crackers In My Soup' in some movie I don't know the name or plot of"?
- Probably more people know that Old Yeller got shot and that everyone who had a heart cried about it than saw the original Disney film (or read the book it was based on).
- Everybody knows Charlie Chaplin and that he starred in slapstick movies. But for modern audiences: how many people have actually ever watched and enjoyed any of his films compared to his international fame?
- The scene in Safety Last! where Harold Lloyd is hanging from a clock is far more famous than the rest of this film, left alone Lloyd himself.
- Fatty Arbuckle is one of the more infamous comedians of the silent era, yet better known for a sex and murder scandal in which he was actually innocent than any of his films.
- Woody Allen: A world famous and recognizable film director about whom most people know just a few things: he is Jewish, his romantic comedies mostly take place in New York and supposedly feature a lot of scenes where he is visiting a psychiatrist. Apart from intellectuals and film critics most people have hardly ever seen a film of his, left alone one tenth of his entire oeuvre.
- Un Chien Andalou: The eye slicing scene is infamous. The rest of the plot is virtually unknown by most people.
- Many Exploitation Films are better known for their outrageous titles and reputations than the number of people that actually saw them.
- Describe a decaying old car, or any desolate road in a desert, or a highway pursuit, as being 'like something out of Mad Max', and most people will instantly know what you mean though they have probably never seen any of the movies. Indeed, most people don't even realize that the first Mad Max film isn't even set After the End.
- "Singing In The Rain" may be one of the most well-known song and dance routines in the world, but how many people have watched the entire movie (or many other Gene Kelly musicals for that matter?)
- Being John Malkovich has an in-universe example with the titular actor (who plays himself). Everyone in the movie admires John Malkovich immensely, and they seem convinced that he's one of the world's greatest living actors. None of them can actually name a movie that Malkovich has been in (except "that jewel thief movie," which Malkovich insists he wasn't in).
- Everyone still snickers whenever infamous and iconic porn classics like Deep Throat, Behind The Green Door, Debbie Does Dallas or Emmanuelle are mentioned. Back then they were blockbusters, but since the end of the 1970s most of these porn classics haven't been watched or enjoyed by anyone. They have all dated badly and for modern viewers most of it isn't particularly exciting compared to more modern porn movies.
Literature — Prose Fiction
- War and Peace is very well known primarily for two things: first, for being an absolute masterpiece, and second, for being a doorstopper over half a million words long. The sheer length scares people away from reading it.
- Lolita. "Lolita" has entered the English language as a seductive adolescent, yet few people will know that the character is clearly written as a tragic victim, and is only described as a seductress from the viewpoint of one of literature's most famous examples of an Unreliable Narrator, and, you know, a horrifying child molester. Her name also isn't actually Lolita in the story. It's a nickname for Dolores.
- The Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady. Hands up who has actually read On the Road, Naked Lunch or "Howl"? Certainly, more people know the origin of Steely Dan's name than have actually seen it in Burroughs's book.
- The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's most famous work. Referenced frequently in Little Women, and the source of the phrase "Vanity Fair," and those are its biggest claims to fame.
- Marcel Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. Perhaps the best-known example of a work people never get round to reading ever. This is understandable, as it's one of the longest novels ever written, over one million words.
- Don Quixote by Cervantes. Although a household name in the Spanish and English-speaking world, and the source of the iconic windmill scene, how many people have read the book?
- Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. Yes, the films were based on a book. No, the book is a well-researched but original work of historical fiction and title character Judah Ben-Hur was not based on a real person of that era. Everyone knows there was a rather brutal chariot race near the end, but that's often as far as it goes. As for actually reading the book or even knowing about it... that's rather less common. And the classic films themselves possess a similar Mainstream Obscurity to Casablanca or Citizen Kane - many people just know that the 1959 film has Charlton Heston, a chariot race and is long as hell.
- The Marquis de Sade is a very well known author, but in reality is best known for having words (and practices) like "sadism" named after him. Most people give his works a wide berth (if they encounter them at all) because they assume (correctly) that they will be exceedingly nasty. This extends to fans of BDSM literature, many of whom will still find parts of his work to be rather too extreme. Most people won’t even be able to name any of his 50-odd works, and those who can will likely cite Justine and/or The 120 Days of Sodom – i.e. the ones with film adaptations.
- Charles Dickens - With the possible exception of A Christmas Carol, which can be read in an afternoon, more people know the more vivid details than have actually read any of the books, which tend to be lengthy and not exactly easy going. Even A Christmas Carol, despite its brevity, hasn't been read by many people; nevertheless, everyone knows the entire story, due to adaptations of it being par for the course in holiday specials.note
- Arabian Nights. Made even worse by the facts that many old translations were heavily bowdlerised. And well known tales like "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves"? Yeah, they weren't originally part of the work, but were added by European translators. So think twice if you think you know Arabian Nights.
- Zorro presents an interesting case. In the book The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins, Collins asserts, on page 51, that Johnston McCulley's Zorro rivals Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan for influence. While one can easily find Burroughs novels in mainstream bookstores today, Johnston McCulley's work has fallen out of print. This seems baffling, considering that values dissonance would seem to apply less to Zorro, given that having a Latino protagonist who seeks retribution for injustice against Native Americans seems progressive. It also seems baffling considering that in the last twenty years, Zorro has had two feature films in theaters, as well as a few TV series, while other properties set in the Old West such as The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy have remained cinematically inert.note Also, Zorro costumes still remain quite common for children. Despite all of that, Johnston McCulley's books are now rarely in print.
- The Sherlock Holmes stories. Plenty of people have read them, but far, far more people are aware of him than have read any of them.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Most people know it's about a guy named Captain Nemo who goes in a submarine and meets/fights a giant octopus. Few could tell you who the narrator and his two friends are, or that Nemo himself is a Sikh.
- More people would be able to identify "Cthulhu" than have actually read an H.P. Lovecraft story, even "The Call of Cthulhu". Most of them are still geeks, so Cthulhu isn't really mainstream yet, but Cthulhu is certainly more well known than the text of the work. Funnily enough, he's not even an especially major power within the Cthulhu Mythos.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Most people know the names and the basic premise, and the expression for dramatic personality shift that it spawned. There have been over a hundred full adaptations made, and countless references in popular culture, usually involving people quaffing potions and becoming monsters. And how many people know that, unlike in pretty much any adaptation in any medium, whether serious or parodic, Jekyll and Hyde being two sides of the same man was a surprise ending?
- This was, reportedly, the basis for the now-lost film The Janus Head, starring Conrad Veidt. The film kept the story intact but changed the characters' names, so nobody in the audience even realized it was a Jekyll and Hyde adaptation until the end, thus preserving The Reveal.
- The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. Both were originally written in French, but translations have been published. Both have better-known adaptations but most people are sort of aware that they were based on books (which is more than can be said for Hugo's other well-known title, Les Misérables).
- Dracula: Obvious, seminal classic of horror, launching an entire and enduring sub-genre, spawning hundreds of adaptations and imitators, and subject to a century's worth of concentrated Adaptation Displacement, Inkstaining and Flanderization. Everyone knows Dracula. How many have read it?
- Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Although the book is sometimes read in schools, most people know so little about the original story that they confuse the names of the creator and the creature. Many people would be surprised to learn that Frankenstein's monster is actually a genius, or that the original text is much more tragedy than horror, or - most startlingly of all - that there is no Igor.
- Few novels are namedropped in political discussions as often as 1984. According to one survey, it's also the novel most Brits lie about having read.
- Conan the Barbarian. Thanks to various movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, Frank Frazetta paintings, Terry Pratchett fans, and countless parodies, everyone knows who Conan is. His name has become synonymous with the big, burly, not-too-bright Barbarian Hero who carries a Cool Sword and runs around in a Loin Cloth. Relatively few of those people have heard of Robert E. Howard, let alone read any of the 21 short stories and novellas featuring his most famous character (who's actually a broodingly philosophical and extremely crafty polymath). Even among the few who have read Conan stories, many of them are more familiar with the Bowdlerized versions by L. Sprague de Camp and the later Expanded Universe books written by Robert Jordan than they are with Howard's originals. Most people who haven't instantly think of the film.
- Played straight with Ian Fleming's novels and short stories featuring James Bond; everyone is familiar with the suave superspy, but comparatively few have actually read any of the original series of books. Averted with the movies, as the great majority of moviegoers have seen at least one of the Bond films at some point during the last 50 years. And even for the people who haven't read the books or seen the films, "James Bond" is still synonymous with "sexy British spy who wears a tuxedo and sleeps with countless beautiful women".
- Such is the mainstream obscurity that the casting of Daniel Craig outraged many fans with the prospect of a blond Bond. In the book Casino Royale, however, he's not only blond, but he's got a mustache.
- Catch-22 is much better known for the term it coined than for the novel itself.
- The Catcher in the Rye. It doesn't help that, in recent years, the novel is more famous (or infamous) by association with Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman than for any actual content in the novel.
- Everyone has heard of James Joyce. How many have actually read Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake or Portrait of the Artist?note
- Sax Rohmer and Doctor Fu Manchu, in that cultural sensitivity has hindered keeping the books in print, though Zebra, Dover and Titan have made efforts, but references to a "Fu Manchu" mustache still occur. Of course, Asian-American civic groups have kept the 1960s Doctor Fu Manchu films off of broadcast television, and for the most part, nobody's missing much.
- Even in serious, academic literary circles, it's often openly admitted that almost no one has actually read Gravity's Rainbow all the way through — despite it being routinely lauded as Thomas Pynchon's supposed seminal work.
- The Christmas 2012 issue of The Economist described Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier as "the most influential unread novel."
- David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is on the short list for most acclaimed novel of the past twenty years, and yet it seems to go mostly unread, probably on account of its thousand-page length, enormous cast of characters, extraordinarily dense narrative, and those endnotes; all of these seem to be more famous than any actual events that transpire over the course of the novel. Wallace's essays seem to be more widely read.
- Most people in the U.S. and Canada are taught in school that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle inspired the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug act but few have actually read the novel. The history surrounding the book is generally considered more noteworthy than the book itself.
- Moby-Dick. People may know about "crazy" Captain Ahab and that Moby-Dick is the white whale, but who has read it? Who realizes that one of the world's largest coffee chains is named after Ahab's first mate?
- Many more people have watched the movies based on The Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit than have ever read the original Cult Classic books.
- There is an in-universe example in the Hyperion series. Martin Silenus wrote a poetry book which became extremely popular and sold three billion copies. Yet another serious poetry work of his - according to him and the publisher, a much better one - only sold twenty four thousand (in a society with over a hundred billion population). His publisher explains that there are less people reading books at all than the number of books sold - but it simply became a fashion to have it at home. Lampshading the trope, she even calls it "Pilgrim's Progress Effect."
- While "Kafkaesque" is a popular adjective, most people haven't read Franz Kafka's stories, or know much about his writing except that someone turns into a cockroach.
- Pinocchio, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory originated as novels. Peter Pan was originally a stage play. All are best-known to the general public via their adaptations into pop culture via film and/or the Disney Animated Canon. Coming to the original texts after seeing the "famous" versions can yield a lot of surprises. (Silver Shoes instead of Ruby Slippers? Peter Pan and Pinocchio are colossal jerks?) So few people realize that there are original, definitive versions of these stories that they become, in the public consciousness, fairy tales and folklore rather than novels by individual authors. Moreover, all of these works have other media adaptations and variations, some to the point of Adaptation Overdosed — especially in their countries of origin — they just haven't been subjected to Pop-Cultural Osmosis. (You might know that Tim Burton directed a film adaptation of Chocolate Factory...but what about the stage version Sam Mendes helmed?) Some even have sequels, either by the original author or authorized by their estatenote , that fly completely under the radar. (Willy Wonka took on carnivorous blob aliens in outer space and won? Dorothy and her family moved to Oz?)
Literature — Other
- Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's best known pieces, many people will probably be able to quote a couple scenes, like "To be or not to be." But they've never read the book or seen a play. They just know that everyone dies, and it had something to do with Yorick.
- This can be extended to all Shakespeare plays, though a few of them (including Hamlet) are often taught at schools in English-speaking countries (frequently accompanied by field trips to see them performed).
- The most blatant Shakespeare example is actually Romeo and Juliet. It seems to be remembered by pop culture as a tragic tale of true love, when the driving force of the play is actually how stupid the two lead characters are, and how this leads to a lot of people - themselves included - getting killed. This turns a lot of song lyrics and ostensibly romantic movie lines into Narm for the more literate in the audience.
- Everyone knows about Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which could arguably be the most well known military book ever. But they almost certainly haven't read it, and probably don't even know that it's very short and reads mostly like a poem.
- Likewise, Clausewitz's On War and Guderian's Achtung - Panzer! are known for just two things. That they are brilliant works of their times about military tactics and that they were written by Germans. In the case of "On War", maybe someone will be able to recall its most famous quote - War is the continuation of politics by other means. But as for "Achtung - Panzer!", while the average person might be expected to know Blitzkrieg is the German concept similar to what's now known as "rapid dominance", and was key to many of their early World War II successes, almost nobody knows what book it's from or who it's by.
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, though it's pretty common reading in colleges, although even there, a few of the Tales tend to be skipped.
- Paradise Lost. Most people know the name and can quote "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," though they don't know from the context that it's not supposed to be taken at face value, especially since Satan doesn't really reign anywhere; by the end of the book, Hell is his prison, not his palace.
- Not a lot of people have actually read Beowulf or The Epic of Gilgamesh.
- Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto. Mein Kampf. Quotations from Chairman Mao (a.k.a. The Little Red Book). Wealth of Nations. This trope is a veritable tar pit for influential political works.
- Understandable for "Das Kapital" (or just "Capital", its English title), since it's a 500+ page book of dense economic theory full of tables and formulae, not amazing socio-economic rhetoric. One section is titled "Circumstances that, Independently of the Proportional Division of Surplus value into Capital and Revenue, Determine the Amount of Accumulation. Degree of Exploitation of Labour-Power. Productivity of Labour. Growing Difference in Amount Between Capital Employed and Capital Consumed."
- Also understandable for Mein Kampf, which is banned in many places. And in the places where it hasn't been banned, it's generally reputed to be incredibly boring and deeply unpleasant.
- The Communist Manifesto is sometimes read in school, if the teacher or department likes original sources, in part because it's only 45 pages long.
- The Little Red Book is sometimes outright banned (e.g. in Taiwan, where anti-Maoism is the official ideology), and many languages have no translations. Many places where there is a translation, it's only academic editions. Part of that is that the Book is now out of favor in Chinese communism, regarded as a piece of "left deviationism" and a "cult of personality" (similar disfavor happened to Stalinist works during and after Khrushchev's administration). And while the Little Red Book is still required reading in Chinese high schools, it's doubtful most students retain much considering the Old Shame way modern China treats the Mao era.
- On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin, more commonly known by its short name The Origin of Species. One good reason for its obscurity is that Science Marches On. Even most evolutionary biologists have not read the book as all the concepts found therein are better and more fully explained in more modern books. However, if more people were better acquainted with it, then fewer people would mistitle it Origin of the Species and believe that it deals mostly with human evolution. For that see Darwin's even more obscure The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
- Most of the seminal works in human sexuality like the Kinsey Reports (Sexual Behaviours of the Human Male and Sexual Behaviours of the Human Female) and all the writings of Masters & Johnson. All of their books became bestsellers when first published due to their risque subject matter, but most readers were immidiately turned off by the dense data analysis, sociological minutiae and graduate-level physiology material crammed in the books.
- Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (often shortened to Principia Mathematica or just Principia) is famed in the scientific community as the work that introduced his laws of motion and principle of universal gravitation (among other things). Nobody is advised to go looking for it, however. Not only was it written in Latin, like many learned texts at the time, but Newton deliberately made the presentation difficult and complicated in order to preserve his work from mere dabblers. Also as mathematics has majorly marched on since Newton's day, the proofs (most done by geometry) in the book can be too old fashioned for modern physicists to easily follow. Most of the scientists of the day instead used Pierre Simon Laplace's Celestial Mechanics (published 100 years after Newton's book), which is a reformulation of the Principia in the vocabulary of calculus.
Newton invented calculus to do physics, but he kept it a secret, and once he knew what the answers were reworked the problems using classical mathematics. Once Leibniz figured out calculus for himself, and published it, everyone just used calculus because it works better.
- Niccolò Machiavelli. Everyone has heard of him, or at least the adjective that he spawned. Few have actually read the treatise that earned him his reputation, The Prince, and even fewer have read any of his other stuff. This is perhaps the reason why so many people seem to believe that the man was an evil genius who wrote an instruction manual on being a tyrant.
- Dante's Inferno. The basic clues are whether they know it is Italian (English translations can be found online), and that it was just part one of his Divine Comedy, along with Purgatorio and Paradiso note . Even most people who have read Inferno never bother to read the other two books. Bonus points if they know it's 'Inferno' written by Dante, and not just Dante's Inferno. More points to people who are aware that it isn't official church canon; then again, it is the (co-)Trope Namer for Word of Dante.
- Classical authors, and any work by them that you can name. Many people know the plot of Homer's The Odyssey, but few have actually read a translation of the epic poem. You probably already know what manner of nasty surprise awaited Oedipus Rex, but how many know the rest of the story, or even the name of the author? Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses - all famous works, but few get further than the names. Only one classical author comes anywhere near managing to avoid this trope - our old friend and multiple trope namer Aesop, whose fables, Bowdlerized as they might be, are still read to kids all over the world.
- The Coen Brothers managed to adapt The Odyssey into O Brother, Where Art Thou? without ever reading it.
- Plato's Dialogues used to be required reading in a great many schools, but this has no longer been standard practice anywhere really since the early 20th Century. As a result, popular culture has a dim memory that Atlantis is an island nation that sinks because of hubris, but nobody seems to realize that it's also an allegory Plato made up to prove a point about the power of his ideals of statehood, and not an actual civilization that the Greeks thought actually existed.
- Faust isn't a straight example, being derived from German folk legends, with no definitive, seminal work moving it into the literary canon. However, most subsequent works did derive from the plays by Marlowe (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust, 1808/1832), and, more importantly for this trope, the majority of people know Faust entirely through Popcultural Osmosis, and few have read any of the source material.
- Unless you're German. Unlike most classic works on this page, Goethe's Faust is the one book everyone has to read in school in Germany. Even if it's just a few passages.
- Bonus points for the fact that the younger generationnote is more likely to link the name Faust with various Western Animation series of the 2000s and The New Tens.
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It is a rather hefty beast, running to six volumes. Historians do read it, as it is still considered authoritative in many respects, and also because it is the earliest such work to actually reference and cite sources. We tropers tend to pick up the title through Popcultural Osmosis, amplified by the fact that every title with "decline and fall" or "rise and fall" is, ultimately, a Shout-Out to it.
- Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time has sold more than 9 million copies and is probably the first thing people think of when anyone mentions Stephen Hawking (aside from his voice), but is often cited as an example of an "unread bestseller". Hawking mentions this in his 2013 autobiography My Brief History, stating that "It has been suggested that many people bought the book to display on the bookcase or on the coffee table, without having actually read it."
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. Though most people are aware of Freud's major theories, few have read his works.
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which is widely considered one of the greatest autobiographies ever written. Almost no one reads it. For a laugh, just ask around who wrote it.
- Hunter S. Thompson is the first name that anyone thinks of when the term "Gonzo journalism" is thrown about, and "Fear and Loathing in X" has become a veritable pop culture snowclone, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many who've read the book in question (there's also an element of Adaptation Displacement at play here) or any of his other works.
- Both Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett get this treatment (though to a less extreme extent than many examples on this page). In the latter's case, it's somewhat understandable, as Beckett only had one work which could be described as "well-known".
- This is true of virtually the entire Joss Whedon oeuvre: his film of The Avengers was his very first work to achieve mainstream popular success.
The foremost example is Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Because of its attractive star and support from critics, it's not exactly ignored by the press. The name also makes it very memorable. Finally, there's generally a lack of A) canonical vampire slayers, and B) female leads in genre programs, so Buffy the character usually finds a niche in pop culture conversations. However, the show itself was never highly watched in its prime.
- The CW seems to be all about this. "TV to talk about," but not necessarily TV to see. Gossip Girl, for all its buzz, rarely draws more than a couple million viewers a week. Averted with Supernatural and Arrow to an extent.
- Likewise, AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad are standard name-dropping fare for people wanting to seem cultured, but continue to get mediocre audiences (even for cable) for shows with so many Emmys. Though the latter ultimately averted this near the end of the series note Having its first 5 seasons streaming on Netflix and excellent word-of-mouth no doubt helped to promote it to a wider audience in time for the Series Finale.
- Arrested Development was a hit with critics and all the buzz in the media. It still had few viewers - in fact, it was literally the lowest-rated show of the year in its first two seasons - and was eventually cancelled.
- Veronica Mars was frequently mentioned in the context of "The fact that this show is struggling is proof that humanity is in trouble," yet its ratings were always mediocre. It frequently made lists of "The Best Shows You're Not Watching," but no one really got the hint.
- There are very few people who have seen acclaimed shows like The Wire in full, yet because it is the general opinion of critics, they immediately proclaim them "the greatest TV show ever made" after watching the first few episodes. Which is silly, given that it's a very slow-burning show which takes several episodes to get going. In general, shows on HBO and Showtime tend to have this problem, in part because they are higher tier networks which people have to pay extra for, thus meaning that most people can't see them legally until they come out on DVD.
- This often occurs with certain episodes of some TV shows, many people have probably seen these shows since they often relive in syndication and on TV Land long after cancellation, but not necessarily episodes often cited as classics.
- Most people could probably say that "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" is commonly considered the best I Love Lucy episode, but not anything beyond about it besides the obvious said in the title.
- Similarly The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode "Chuckles Bites The Dust" has often been cited as one of if not THE funniest TV episode of all time...but how many who are aware of that "fact" have even seen it or any episode of the show? In a similar vein the song's theme song and opening sequence are far more recognizable than anything about the actual show.
- Even the case for more recent shows. Just about everyone who was born before or during Seinfeld was on the air has seen an episode in syndication at least once, but that's not necessarily "The Soup Nazi". However just about everyone can state the basic premise of the episode or quote the character's famous catchphrase.
- Likewise, the two Friends episodes just about everybody cites when talking about the show are "The One With The Embryos" and "The One Where Everybody Finds Out." Outside of hardcore fans, how many would be familiar with, say, "The One Where Ross Hugs Rachel"?
- Ellen is almost always thought of as "that show where the lead character came out". If you were very young or not yet born in the '90s, you might be forgiven for assuming it was, from beginning to end, a show about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality, when in fact for three seasons it was a somewhat run-of-the-mill Seinfeldian "comedian gets a sitcom"-type show, and it wasn't until the end of the third season that she came out, then spent exactly one season focusing on her being an out lesbian before being cancelled.
- Everyone knows Twin Peaks was weird and focused on the question of who killed someone named Laura Palmer, but not much beyond that is remembered. This may be for the best, since it prevents the killer's identity from becoming common knowledge, allowing new viewers to properly experience the mystery for themselves. And it actually got terrific ratings in its day, and has only become this trope more recently.
- The Prisoner was the show with the guy and the giant balloon, right? And he had, like, a jacket, and he was a number or something?
- Radio dramas such as the Lone Ranger and Dragnet featured prominent adaptations in other media which have helped perpetuate the prominence of these franchises. While these show generally had high ratings as radio shows in their initial runs, syndication of these radio shows in later decades (after the 1960's) did not seem as prominent.
- The Goon Show is hugely influential; it launched the careers of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, inspired most of the Monty Python team and their contemporaries, and codified many of the "zany Sketch Show" tropes. But does anyone actually listen to it much these days?
- The Bible may well be the most widely owned but unread book in the Western world. As a result, many people think certain sayings, such as "The Lord helps those who help themselves," or "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" are Biblical, when they really aren't. The true irony is that the people who seem to read The Bible least often isn't the group you'd expect (atheists), but is, rather, the Christians.
- A common joke among atheists is that the fastest way to become an atheist is to read the Bible (or Quran, or whatever religious text one subscribes to).
- Most people could probably summarise pretty well the first two books of the Bible - in other words, from Creation to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. What happens for the rest of the Old Testament? Much less well known.
- And about that Creation story: most people don't tend to know off the top of their head that there are two (contradictory) accounts of creation, and most English-speaking Christians don't know that Noah's "two animals of each kind" were actually fourteen in one (canonical) verse.note The fact that many of these people are 'biblical literalists' such as young-earth creationists actually takes the trope up to eleven on a regular basis.
- For Judaism, there's the Talmud, a text that everyone is aware of but almost no one has actually read. Then again, just because this particular collection of jurisprudence is concerned with religious rather than secular law doesn't make it not a bunch of legal briefs.
Tabletop & Card Games
- Call of Cthulhu is essentially the tabletop cultural shorthand for Total Party Kill, so the relative dearth of people that have actually played it is possibly more a matter of intentionally avoiding it than anything else.
- Many gamers have heard of "Friend Computer" and "Commie Mutant Traitors," but few of them have actually played Paranoia.
- For the public at large, Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Everyone's heard of them, but non-gamers are unlikely to know anything about how the games are played and probably couldn't identify which one is which.
- Though a number younger gamers may not have played them (yet), the ongoing popularity of many early generation video games ensures that it's still easy to know "of" a number of defining titles of generations past. Among younger gamers, for example, Mainstream Obscurity may apply to something like the original Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda or Metroid (1985-1986), or even games as recent as Final Fantasy VII (1997). Both Nintendo and Sony have taken some steps to avert this through the Virtual Console and the PlayStation Store respectively, but not all titles have been made available through these systems (most notably, EarthBound until April 2013). The growth of Digital Distribution and services like GOG.com that provide ports of retro games to modern operating systems has helped in recent years.
- This might happen with acclaimed games that received a limited print run when released and have yet to be re-released, or were received less favorably at the time and only recently come into acclaim. For example, almost every gamer knows about EarthBound owing to its wide acclaim as one of the best SNES role-playing games and Ness' regular appearances in the Super Smash Bros. series; the same goes for its sequel MOTHER 3 and its protagonist Lucas on a lesser scale. Until 2013, if you wanted to play the former, your only options were to purchase an extremely expensive used copy note , or acquire them using questionable methods. For the latter, those two methods still apply, as such people know Lucas solely from The Subspace Emissary. As a result, almost everyone has heard of EarthBound and MOTHER 3 and is passingly familiar with the two main heroes, but far fewer have actually played it.
- Psychonauts is considered by many to be among the best platformers outside of classic Sonic and Nintendo franchises. It sold under 400,000 units.
- Harvest Moon fans are quick to cite Harvest Moon 64 as the best game in the franchise, and as one of the better games on the Nintendo64, but few fans have actually played it. Most fans began around Friends Of Mineral Town or later, and the game won't appear on Virtual Console due to emulation problems.
- Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaotix are beloved among Sonic the Hedgehog fans, even though they both came out exclusively for obscure consoles in the early 1990s (the Sega CD and the Sega 32X). Most fans know that Amy debuted in Sonic CD while Espio, Vector, and Charmy got their start in Knuckles' Chaotix (although Vector was present, albeit hidden, in the original Sonic game years earlier). However, it's nearly impossible to find one of these consoles, much less these games, although Sonic CD has since been released for Steam and appeared on Sonic Gems Collection.
- NiGHTS Into Dreams is familiar to a good number of Sonic (and, more widely, Sega) fans, especially those who have played Sonic Adventure, where it appeared as a pinball board, but it didn't sell well, even for the Saturn.
- Jet Set Radio tends to come to mind quickly when cel-shaded animation or the Dreamcast is brought up in gaming conversations. The critics adored it, but it was not one of the best-selling games even for the Dreamcast, although it's now available on Steam.
- Super Mario RPG is hailed as not only an interesting Mario departure, but one of the greatest RPGs ever. It also came out near the end of the SNES's lifespan and no one cared about it at the time.
- Half-Life 2: Lost Coast for Steam counts in a different way. Over 10 million players reportedly own it, but far fewer have ever loaded it up.
- Beyond Good & Evil is very popular and widely praised for a game that sold for ten dollars and still sold less than 100,000 units.
- Zero Wing entered the mainstream because of its hilariously bad translation...but very few people know anything about the actual gameplay, or have ever played the game itself.
- Grim Fandango, while it often appears on critics' best-of lists, hasn't even sold 100,000 copies. Due to being a PC game from the 90s, it requires extra effort to get it running on modern computers. Although as of E3 2014, a release for the PSN has been announced.
- Panzer Dragoon Saga at least was this. It was visible on many top 100 games lists and is considered to be the best game on the Sega Saturn, but many have not played it. It helps that it only sold around 10,000 copies in the US (although to be fair its European and Japanese sales were better).
- Bambi gets this. Everyone remembers the first half of the movie, or at least the iconic scene where Bambi's mother is killed and he leaves the forest with his father. How many people remember the second half, where Bambi returns to the forest as an adult and has to save the animals from a human-caused wildfire?
- Fantasia: Adjusted for inflation it's the third highest-grossing animated film ever, but not many people today can actually name a segment from it aside from "the Mickey Mouse part" and maybe "that scene with the devil guy".
- Felix the Cat: One of the oldest, most iconic and enduring cartoon characters of all time. Yet, how many people under 30 have ever seen one of his cartoons of the silent era? Apart from that: how many people could actually tell you anything about Felix's personality?
- Popeye the Sailor: People know that Popeye is strong, eats spinach, has a girlfriend named Olive Oyl and an archenemy named Bluto. They may also know that he has a friend named Wimpy who loves hamburgers and an adopted son named Swee'pea. They may not know that he starred in both a comic strip as well as over 200 short cartoons from the 1930s to the 1950s, much less be able to name any of them or tell you what happens in them outside of "he gets into fights".
- Steamboat Willie: Most people know this is Mickey Mouse's first sound cartoon and the film that launched the Disney empire. The opening scene with Mickey whistling and steering the boat has since become the ident for Walt Disney Feature Animation early in the 21st century, but how many are familiar with the rest of the plot?
- Woody Woodpecker: Everyone recognizes the character and can mimic his iconic laugh, but actually being able to name any of the side characters or stories is less easy. Many kids today seem to know him more from his association with the Universal Studios theme parks than from having watched his short films.
- Yogi Bear: He is a bear who is smarter than the average bears, has a friend named Boo Boo and steals pick-a-nick baskets. That's about all the general public of today knows about these cartoons.
- You could find fifty people with opinions about Roe v. Wade strong enough to provoke violence before you met a single one who'd actually read it. Or know what the ruling was actually about besides just "abortion". Or that there was a companion decision the same day called Doe v. Bolton which was just as influential if not moreso.Summary
- Almost every single journal article about autism references Leo Kanner's original description of autism. Many of them go on to summarize his paper with comments that make it obvious that they haven't read it, such as claiming that he described low functioning autism (in reality, his subjects showed a wide range of ability, with one being clearly high functioning). Hans Asperger's article gets this a bit too, since no one seems to notice that modern criteria for Asperger Syndrome are noticeably different from his conception of the condition.
- Unless you're talking to an actual Constitutional Law scholar, odds are that most people who talk about the Constitution and what different Amendments mean in different contexts have not actually read the entire document or can tell you what all the different Amendments are. This is also true for many European constitutions; you'd be lucky to find an average person on a German street who knows at least 3 articles on the Grundgesetz (the first and most important of them being "Human dignity is untouchable.")
- Among language-learning circles, this trope tends to go for languages without a large speaker pool but that are tied to an oppressed or otherwise romanticized population. On language-learning websites, many users have languages like Basque, Irish, Ainu, Catalan, Icelandic, and Navajo in their "wanted" lists, or claim a low degree of proficiency, but never get any further because it's so difficult to find materials and, well, they don't really care that much.
Navajo has less to do with the Navajo being romanticized—they're not, they essentially have no real presence to the rest of the world's consciousnessnote —and more to do with Navajo being a sampler of "weird" linguistic features. Learning Navajo is linguistics on Legendary, so people pursue knowledge of it for the sake of bragging rights.note