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"A classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Rosebud was a sled that Charles Foster Kane owned when he was a kid. Everyone knows that. You even know that "rosebud" was the last word of Kane on his deathbed, and that the entire plot of the film is based on finding out just what that word meant. But have you actually ever watched Citizen Kane? Don't worry if you haven't. As it turns out, you're not alone. Most people haven't seen what is widely regarded as the greatest movie ever made.

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 amateur review sites, and is one of the most truly well-known works in media, but yet maybe 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 ubiquitous that "everybody knows about it", and yet no one has actually seen it, the 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 bother.

Even university students studying the subject in question don't read many "classic" works of 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. 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 Complaining About Shows You Don't Watch and 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.


Anime & Manga

  • Spirited Away seems to be pretty well-known since the Oscar win. Still seems to be eternally waiting around on people's Netflix queues.
  • 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).


  • 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 Spider-Man, but they probably won't know that he and Mary Jane are no longer together, or that MJ was actually his fourth girlfriend.
      • Even if they're familiar with the X Men, they probably won't know now that they now operate out of an Island Base in California instead of a mansion in New York, or that Cyclops' current love interest is Emma Frost rather than Jean Grey.
      • 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.
    • 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.
    • The Onion uses this as the joke in a TV spot about the Green Lantern.
  • 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!


  • 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.
  • 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 is a dark somber allegory rather than a cheesy "monster on the loose" film.
  • 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.
  • How many people have actually seen Soylent Green? But everyone knows that it's made of people.
  • The Seventh Seal is frequently referenced 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.
  • Most people will know Eraserhead is one of the most Mind Screwy doses of Nightmare Fuel ever and has a guy with a weird electrified hairstyle in it, but won't have a clue about what happens in the movie.
  • 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 have actually seen her films?
  • 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?
  • Many exploitation films are better known for their outrageous titles and reputations than the amount of people that actually saw and left alone appreciated these pictures.
  • 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.
  • "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?)


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, though it's pretty common reading in colleges.
  • 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.
  • Beowulf.
  • Lolita. "Lolita" has entered the English language as a seductive adolescent, yet few people will know that the character's name isn't actually Lolita in the story. It's a nickname.
  • 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 tarpit for influential political works.
  • 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. However, if more people were better acquainted with it, than 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Niccolo 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. This is perhaps the reason why so many people seem to believe that the man was an evil genius who wrote a instruction manual on being a tyrant.
    • Nowadays, the word "Machiavellian" means a lot of subtle, complex plotting. The Prince, on the other hand, involves a lot of kicking down the doors of your enemies' houses and leaving no survivors.
      • And this does tie into the subtle way that Machiavelli was using The Prince as a Take That on politics at the time, so the description fits.
      • The word "Machiavellian" and the mainstream interpretations of The Prince usually also fail to take into account the fact that Machiavelli wrote a lot of other things, such as a second political treatise that is a republican counterpoint to The Prince, two comedies (that seem to simultaneously mock and endorse the "Machiavellian Prince"), a brief sexual epic, a history of Florence, two historical/allegorical poems about the Italian Wars, and a number of other miscellania.
  • The Pilgrims 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.
  • Dante's Inferno. The basic clues are whether they know it is Italian (English translations can be found online), that it was just part one of his Divine Comedy, or whether they know it is Political Satire instead of a philisophical/religious jaunt. 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'.
  • Marcel Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. It's the single most mentioned example of a work people never get round to reading ever.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes. Although a household name in the Spanish and English-speaking world, how many people have read the book?
  • 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.
  • 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 Goethe (Faust, 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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. (And there is nothing in the book that hasn't been covered by one of the more faithful adaptations, anyway.)
  • 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. (Also note that Zorro's adventures take place even earlier in history than those of Hopalong Cassidy or the Lone Ranger.) Also, Zorro costumes still remain quite common for children. Despite all of that, Johnston McCulley's books are now rarely in prin.
  • 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.
  • The Sherlock Holmes stories. 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.
  • More people would be able to identify "Cthulhu" than have actually read an HP 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.
  • The Strange Case of Doctor 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?
  • 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 the original text?
  • 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.
  • Few novels are namedropped in political discussions as often as Nineteen Eighty-Four. 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. Very 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. 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.
  • 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 22 Bond films at some point during the last 50 years.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Everyone has heard of James Joyce. How many have actually read Ulysses, Finnegans Wake or Portrait of the Artist?
  • 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".
  • 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" moustache still occur. Of course, Asian-American civic groups have kept the 1960's Doctor Fu Manchu films off of broadcast television.
  • 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 Shadow knows ... but virtually no one knows The Shadow. These days, it's a rare bird indeed who has experienced the original Walter Gibson novels, or any of his numerous radio, comic-book, and film adaptations (even the Alec Baldwin joint was ill-attended).

Live-Action TV

  • 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 2) 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.
  • 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.
  • Arrested Development was a hit with critics and all the buzz in the media. It still had few viewers 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 rating were always mediocre. It frequently made lists of "The Best Shows You're Not Watching," but no one really got the hint.


  • A lot of classical music suffers from this. Most people can recognize the first few notes of "Für Elise", Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra", but have never heard the rest of the music that follows.
  • Richard Wagner. You definitely know "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkuere and the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin (though probably without the words), and you might know "The Pilgrims' Chorus" from Tannhauser (though it isn't performed in one chunk like that in the opera) or the "Liebestod" from Tristan Und Isolde, but that will be about it. He wrote 113 compositions, including 13 operas (most of which were rather too long, making their Mainstream Obscurity understandable).

 "Wagner has great moments but dull quarter hours" - Rossini

    • What little most people know of Wagner's music is because it's been used in other places--Apocalypse Now and the Looney Tunes cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" for "Ride of the Valkyries," and weddings for the "Bridal Chorus". Check out the Classics section of Standard Snippet for these and other bits of Wagner that you never knew you knew.
    • "Liebestod" is an example on its own. It is one of the more famous bits of Wagner, a notable finale and dramatic death scene from someone who put a lot into his dramatic deaths. It is a true test of both the musical director and the female lead to be able to do it justice. Now, how does the tune go?
  • Slayer: "The most talked about band that no one actually listens to."
  • You know the Epic Riff from "Smoke on the Water". If you know anything at all about music or have ever heard anyone learning the guitar, or even just play rhythm games, you know that riff. However, Deep Purple is surprisingly obscure nowadays for such a prolific and popular band.
  • Many of the most critically hailed rock albums of all time suffer from this. Most people recognize The Velvet Underground and Nico for its Andy Warhol banana cover, but only hardcore rock fans can name any of its tracks. Radiohead's OK Computer was named the best album of the '90s in a recent poll, but, again, few people can name a single track from it. And Richard (with or without Linda) Thompson always has several albums on best-of lists, but few people can name any of his songs.
    • Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Or indeed, any track other than "Anarchy in the UK".
  • Hip Hop for the most part averts this. Most classic rap albums are well known at least regionally if not nationally. If it had a buzz and was critically acclaimed people knew about it and heard it because most of those albums were insanely popular. The DJ's helped with said classic albums popularity as well. However, some younger Gen-Y rap fans admittedly are probably not familiar (unless they had older siblings whom played the music).
  • The song "Linus and Lucy" actually has a jazz section in the middle that most people never noticed (and it is a shock when people learn to play it).
  • Swan Lake: the first name people think of when it comes to ballet, [1] but that's often as far as it goes. Music-wise, the Overture, the Waltz, and the Cygnets Dance get out in the public consciousness somewhat, but that's out of a running time of around two hours. Comparatively few people have seen the entire ballet (even on TV), or are aware of its characters, plot or composer.

Mythology & Religion

  • The Bible may well be the most widely owned but unread book in the Western world. Recent surveys have shown that while a majority of Americans (close to 70%) self-identify as Christians, less than 30% of the population have ever read The Bible cover-to-cover, and less than 10% can recite more than a few sentences from its text. As a result, many people think certain sayings, such as "The Lord helps those who help themselves," or "Cleanliness is to Godliness" are Biblical, when they really aren't.
    • It gets even worse. A recent study shows that most of the 30% who have read the Bible are people who don't believe in God anyway.


  • Eagleland Osmosis and its many kin lead to many sports falling into this trap. Most know what curling is; how is it played? All non-Americans know we silly Yanks have a sport they call football that has nothing to do with actual football or futbol; non-Americans, what is an onside kick and when is it legal? This goes double for Olympic sports that don't have big fandoms; everyone knows that fencing has the term "En guarde," and most understand the loanword "touche." Can you name all three weapons in the sport with any certainty? Name all five events in a pentathlon. How many matches in a Sumo tournament? Why does a cricket bat have that funny curve to it? Depending on your parent culture, some of these questions are general knowledge and others are difficult trivia about a subject you likely thought you knew about.
  • Golf. Everyone knows the basics. Golfing and golf courses are used as settings in every form of media. Golf game/simulators are available for every platform. Clips from competitive games frequently appear on television, and our culture is scattered with golfing terms and allusions - anyone remember the golfball typewriters? It's even the G in the NATO phonetic alphabet. Now, who knows what winter rules cover, and when they apply? [2]

Tabletop & Card Games

  • Everyone knows Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering exist, yes? Outside of those who actually play such games, the public knows very little about any of these games and grossly stereotypes those who do.
  • Chess has inspired numerous tropes because its appearance is so pervasive in culture and it can quickly define someone as an intellectual. Most people don't go much farther than "the horse makes an L."


  • Though many younger gamers will never played them, 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, or even games as recent as Final Fantasy VII. Both Nintendo and Sony have taken some steps to avert this through the Virtual Console and the Play Station Store respectively, but not all titles have been made available through these systems (most infamously and painfully, Earthbound).
  • 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 favourably 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 RPGs 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. However, if you want to play either, your only options are to purchase an extremely expensive used copy [3], or acquire them using questionable methods. 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.
    • Mother 3 is a particularly notable example. Super Smash Bros Brawl, arguably the most popular fighting game of all time, sold over 25 times as many units worldwide as Mother 3. Guess how most people learn about Mother 3's existance.
  • Psychonauts is considered by many to be among the best platformers for a 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.

Real Life

  • Loads of people (Americans especially) know that the opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence is "When in the course of human events", and they know that somewhere in there are the lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." But very few know what the rest of the document says.
    • The same goes for the U.S. Constitution, to the point that a lot of Americans think that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is actually written somewhere in the Constitution, rather than the Declaration of Independence. Same goes for "all men are created equal." In their place, the Constitution has "life, liberty, or property", and "equal protection of the laws". "Life, Liberty, and Property" is originally from the philosopher John Locke, a major inspiration for the rebellion: Jefferson had changed it for the Declaration.
      • Most Americans of a certain age can recite the Preamble... even if they have to sing it.
    • Not that most of the Declaration of Independence is really interesting. The first two paragraphs (which contain the famous lines) are worth reading, but the rest of it is a Long List of complaints about how King George III was governing the colonies.
    • Take this and double it for any opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. 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.
    • Many people seem to have a misinformed view of what the First Amendment actually says, shouting "FREE SPEECH!" when they get banned from a website, or even just when people disagree with them or their words have consequences. In reality, the First Amendment only protects you against government censorship [4]. Your average blog owner or forum administrator is not the government, and therefore is free to moderate their space as they see fit. And obviously, it doesn't protect anyone from criticism; people who disagree with you have the right to free speech, too.
    • Similarly, the First Amendment also does not use the phrase "separation of church and state" with regard to religion. Thomas Jefferson coined that phrase in a letter that he wrote to a Baptist congregation about 15 years after the Bill of Rights was passed. What the First Amendment actually says is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Church/state arguments are notorious for both sides trumpeting whichever half of that statement supports their views, while conveniently ignoring the other half.
  • 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.
  • 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.


  1. even before Black Swan,
  2. In most temperate countries, winter slows grass growth but doesn't stop it altogether, and prevents ground staff from keeping the fairways and so on cut to the right length. Winter rules allow players to compensate for this by treading down the grass around their ball where it lies. Naturally, things vary from course to course - so details of winter rules, where present, are printed on the back of each scorecard, along with every other local rule or variation.
  3. for Earthbound, upwards of $80 just for the cartridge, and complete mint copies have been known to pass the $1000 barrier
  4. The amendment specifically mentions "Congress," and has been extended by the Supreme Court to other levels of government and government-sponsored entities, like public schools
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