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Read this, not that: 13 classics nobody’s read, and then some.

September 6, 2010

Yeah. Me, neither.

I’ll admit when I saw the HuffPo headline, “13 Books Nobody’s Read But Say They Have,” I was pretty damned cocky. We’ll see about that, I thought to myself as I clicked on the link, confident 20 years as a professional reviewer and a lifetime of serious reading would serve me well.

I come to you this morning chagrined, embarrassed, humbled:  Of the 13 titles, I have read (to completion, anyhow), but two: The Satanic Verses, which I reviewed in 1988 (and probably would not have finished otherwise), and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which I also read in the late 1980s, a time I was mad for science.

I was much abetted, honesty compels me to confess, by Hawking’s brilliant decision to leave out all the math. His sometime research partner, Roger Penrose, did include math in his book The Emperor’s New Mind (1990), which defeated me in short order, even though I am in profound sympathy with its thesis that the human mind is not a computer.

Canterbury Tales? Ahem, uh, I’ve read the lusty, farty stories, like everyone else, but the whole thing? I always meant to! Democracy in America? I’ve read a lot of stuff about De Toqueville’s classic. Ulysses? Well, no. Life is too short, and no apologies for that.

It’s oddly sinister the way this list has been constructed, because it’s not all difficult literature of a medicinal nature. How hard could A Christmas Carol be? Alas, I’ve contented myself with several movie adaptations, from the 1951 Alastair Sim classic to the Patrick Stewart version (“A turkey for Tiny Tim! Make it so!”). But my favorite will always be Mr. Magoo. Yours, too, I’ll wager.

Cutting to the chase here: Moby Dick? Never got past the second page. Infinite Jest? Are you kidding? A 1,200-page novel, with footnotes!? The Name of the Rose? Sadly, no. In Search of Lost Time? Again, no. Don Quioxote? On several occasions I got as far as the windmill scene.

As I Lay Dying? Nope. War and Peace? Uh-huh. Head hanging low.

Okay, two out of 13, not an impressive score, I’ll grant. But let me turn this around by giving you a list of much- lauded, little-read books that I have gotten through, some of them with great pleasure, and see if that doesn’t redeem my literary reputation a bit.

Think of it as a variation on Men’s Health magazine’s popular “Eat This, Not That!” feature..

So I didn’t read The Name of the Rose, but I did derive great pleasure from Umberto Eco’s more recent novel, Baudolino. No, I didn’t finish As I Lay Dying, but I did read every excruciating word of The Hamlet (I now talk only about Faulkner’s short stories, thank you very much).

No Chaucer, but I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte d’Arthur, and a prose version of the Nibelungenlied. I like to think Tolkein would be proud. In place of De Tocqueville, I read The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the one-volume edition edited by Bernard de Voto. No Cervantes, true, but I read Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding (and laughed my ass off! Man, they were Enlightened in the 18th century).

While I’ve never tackled the whole of Proust, I did read and enjoy Swann’s Way. Plus The Red and The Black, Great Expectations, Vanity Fair, Nostromo, Huckleberry Finn, Madame Bovary and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the oddest novel written in the 19th century, I’ll wager.

No Joyce, but lots of Nabokov (and no, not just Lolita) and also Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist.

And if I can claim little Tolstoy (which is to say: None), I’ve read both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, not to mention the short stories of Chekhov.

No offense to Tolstoy, who, I have on good authority, is remarkably readable for a Russian, but I can hardly imagine what he  can say about adultery in the several hundred pages of Anna Karenina that Chekhov does not cover in the 7,000 words of “The Lady with the Dog.”

Okay, okay, so I’ve read a few classics in my day. What about you? Who can best my pitiful total of two out of 13? And who has some additional classics you’d like to tell the class about?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 9:42 pm

    Blimey, Chauncey, I’ve read nearly all of them. Does that sound like bragging? Hope not. Look, I used to teach Chaucer: Whan that Aprill with its shouers sote. I love the beauty of Middle English, the rhythm that Shakespeare captures and makes into modern English. The books from the list I couldn’t finish: The Name of the Rose. Made me feel stupid because everyone seemed to love it and it bored me half to death. Ditto The Red & The Black. Democracy in America: bits and pieces, never the whole thing. Baudolino: no way. Nibelungenlied: nope. The Conformist: uhn-uh. “The Lady with the Dog” is brilliant. But Anna Karenina is beyond brilliant, a work of pure genius from the mind of a madman. Isn’t it odd that here we go with the lists again? On whose authority? What do they know other than their own tastes and traditions? Still, if I was asked to list another by Faulkner (don’t hate me) it would be The Sound and the Fury. Anything by Joyce except Finnegans Wake: … riverrun past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay – If you can memorize the first page it’s a feat guaranteed to protect you from Alzheimer’s. Honestly I wish life weren’t so short so I could read the whole 7 hundred something pages. The equivalent, Bradbury might imagine, of traveling to Mars.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 7, 2010 9:57 am

      You’re even more my hero now, Duff. I’m still stinging from shock at having read so few of this particular list of classics. I generally thing of myself as a well-read individual (to make a gigantic understatement), but apparently not so much as I thought. I believe I will go blow up my TV here in a minute… I indulged in a little overstatement there about Tolstoy and Chekhov, just to get across my extreme admiration for the “The Lady with the Dog.” You’ve already persuaded me, via earlier discussions, to place Anna Karenina high up on my list of things to read when the press of review reading allows. In fact, I pulled down my copy and read the first chapter, and I must say I found it pretty hooky, especially compared with the opening of Crime and Punishment, with which Doestoevsky seems to be daring us to continue…

  2. September 6, 2010 11:04 pm

    Ouch, ouch, ouch. The lusty farty Miller’s Tale and A Christmas Carol. Quite a few of the others that you’ve marshaled in your defense. No Ulysses, but I did manage A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – because it was required for A-level lit. *slinks off*

  3. September 7, 2010 7:37 am

    I’m speechless…well ALMOST. It was about ten years ago, that I was introduced to Sir Chauncey Mabe through his column at the Sentinel when I happened to read his opinion on something to do with porn, where he was decidedly against it and I was passionately for it. For the life of me I don’t remember what the subject was or why we never went for coffee like he suggested after weeks of written debate back and forth, but what I do remember is thinking of he as Mr. Haughty-Taughty English guy. I would’ve figured that pirahna like yourself devoured us on lists like this that usually appeal to the elite echelon of the literary world. Boy, was I wrong. Of that list I have read Don Quixote, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, Canterbury Tales, War and Peace, and The Satanic Verses, but that is not actually what caught me by the most surprise. I figured you as a person who is ALWAYS reading and I imagined the depth and scope of your literary conquests to be huge, or at least much larger than a 34 year-old graduate with a double major (Communications and English) but really not much on reading during his free time. I hardly ever pick up books now, and if I do it is only to enhance my writing skills by learning how some of my other favorites write. I have spent the last year or two reading Carver, Bukoski, Palahniuk, Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Before that, I did time with the Beats (Kesey, Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg), but other than those, I have hardly read in years. However, somehow during my high school and college years, I managed to acquire a list of reads which basically would be contained on any syllabus for school anywhere. Taking courses entitled History of American Literature Pre 1885, and then another course for 1885 to 1940, and a final for 1940 to now in the Masters English Department at FAU pretty much had me reading every notable American bok in the last 300 years from the Tracendentalists to the Naturalists and then those that believed we control our fate. Also at Florida State in my undergrad, I encountered almost all of Dostoevsky’s works, along with Tolstoy, Marx and Checkov, a complete library of Shakespeares works and then most notable titles from Camus, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Pearl S. Buck, and all the others you would expect. What surprises me most of this is not only the list, but all the other readings you have done. I seem to be familiar with all of them, AND HAVE READ THEM MYSELF, but surely that can’t be because I read leisurely and rarely do it on my own in my spare time. I am left wondering now, is their some wealth of literature that you have read that I have not found or are their just not that many books, or at least notable ones. My list looks like a top 40 music list, covering all the favorites from Sinclair’s “The Jungle” to Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” and “The Great Gatsby” to Toni Morrison’s “Song of Soloman” to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, but is their really not much else that needs to be read? I hardly engage in any modern best sellers, but is their something I’m missing out on? Please let me know which library section, YOU’VE been hiding in, and what your list looks like.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 7, 2010 10:40 am

      Well…no man can read all the time. There’s eat, pray, love. Not to mention make a living. And baseball.

      I’m still against pornography, by the way, although I would never seek to outlaw it. Instead, I’ll stand over here, stamp my foot, and say: “Bad! Porn bad!”

      While I’m impressed by the listing of books you’ve read (though not as impressed as you are), I’m confused by your attitude toward reading, which seems to be of an entirely utilitarian nature: What can I get out of this book, what can it do for me?

      If so, then I am very sad for you.

      That’s because –and this is the summation of my world view and values system — the only reason to read is for pure, selfish pleasure. If you don’t read for pleasure, why bother?

      And while this may indicate a lack of sophistication or imagination on my part, I cannot conceive that someone who does not read by choice and for pleasure could ever be capable of writing anything that would be worth reading.

      To the matter at hand: The problem is not that there are so few worthwhile books, as you seem to hope, but that there are so very, very, VERY many. So many books, so little time. Here is a list of important books I’ve read, all by choice, all for pleasure. Tomorrow I could give you an entirely different one:

      1. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren.
      2. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stephenson.
      3. Childwold, Joyce Carol Oates.
      4. Catch-22, Joseph Heller.
      5. The Plague, Albert Camus.
      6. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut.
      7. The Third Man, by Graham Greene.
      8. The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous.
      9. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane.
      10. At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Peter Matthiessen.
      11. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
      12. Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell translation.
      13. The Burgess Shale, Stephen Jay Gould.
      14. An Outcast of the Islands, Joseph Conrad.
      15. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein.
      16. Couples, John Updike.
      17. The Women’s Room, Marilyn French.
      18. Satyricon, Petronius.
      19. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway.
      20. Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters.
      21. Remember Be Here Now, Ram Dass.
      22. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje.
      23. West with the Night, Beryl Markham.
      24. July’s People, by Nadine Godimer.
      25. Seven Gothic Tales, Karen Blixen.
      26. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.
      27. The Gods of Pegana, by Lord Dunsany.
      28. Little Big Man, Thomas Berger.
      29. The Trial, Franz Kafka.
      30. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark.

      I’ve always read promiscuously, lurching from one book to the next, with no goal or plan in mind other than read as much as possible. At this late date, I am unlikely to change. In fact, I recommend it to others for the extreme joy it affords.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    September 7, 2010 3:14 pm

    Okay, from the Huff list I have read A Christmas Carol (because John Irving touted it in an interview I read), Moby Dick (11th grade English), A Brief History of Time (love the quantum thing daddio) and The Name of the Rose (I think someone left it on a boat I was on and I actually enjoyed the mystery). Now, on a personal note, I have recently slogged through Anna Karenina, ostensibly on your recommendation, Chauncey, and now I find out you never… why I never! Truth be told, I loved it. I find suicidal women hopped up on selfishness and sleeping pills irresitable. Turns out old Leo was a hoot. On your list, Mr. Mabe, I can only claim six out of thirty, for shame, I shall get busy reading.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 7, 2010 9:46 pm

      I’m sorry if I made it sound I was recommending AK from personal experience. I was actually passing along a very persuasive recommendation from Duff Brenna, the novelist and college professor who sometimes joins us here. Listen, John, if you read and enjoy some of the books on my list, great. But I bet you could list 30 of your favorites, and I might not have read that many of them, either. So many great books, so little time. Read for pleasure, pal — but always be ready to enlarge you idea of what gives pleasure.

  5. September 7, 2010 5:30 pm


    Thank you for the quick reply. To respond, I have a curious affair with reading. Don’t get me wrong, I have read far too many books to ever try to say some have not been great or enjoyable, as I have loved many on the list you just put up, such as “The Sun Also Rises”, “Catch-22” and “Kidnapped” as well have read some of the others, like Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”. And then of course, I have my own list of personal favorites, like Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, Burrough’s “Junky” and so on and so forth. And I am also glad you published that second list, because now I kinda get a better idea of what you have been reading, and I can say in comparison to that list, I have read VERY little of those. Secondly, in answering your charge that I read for a utilitarian purpose, I guess I do. I read to learn history through fiction to see what people thought or felt at times, also to learn how to effectively write,by focusing on what many master authors of the past and present do and finally just to educate myself on literature, as I like to always keep learning. I don’t think your reading for pleasure demonstrates any lack of sophistication and I’m glad you enjoy books the way you do, but for myself reading has been something I have done very little on my own if not instructed to course-wise or I have delved into due to curiousity to see what many people thought was great. Furthermore, I have nothing against reading, I wish I did it more, but to me it always seems like a great idea, until I get started and then sometimes it seems like I need to motivate myself to go back. Finally, I don’t know how well I write, but I can say to this day, after 15 years of writing fiction and performing my own written stand-up comedy routines, in the last two years I have picked up a deal with Paramount to make a film which I wrote the screenplay for called “The Weaker Sex” (which will be out in theatres late next year) and right now I am working on two books: (1) a memoir of my life from 17 to 29 where I was involved in adult-entertainment, drugs, Vegas sports handicapping, teaching at FAU and recruiting students (one which became Mary Carey who ended up running for Governor of California after she made her name in adult film) and some other situations that led to a crazy-life and (2) a fictional book of short stories with a novella, both which have been accepted by a large west coast publisher who has provided a comfortable advance. So, am I good, who knows, but it sells. And while I am thankful that my job is much easier than most people who have to really do some terrible labor, I still more days than not, have to drag myself to the desk to write that next scene, chapter or routine of mine..Have a great day…

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    September 7, 2010 9:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing that explanation of how you read and how you work. It’s good to be reminded that mine is not the only way to be, either as a writer, or a reader. You certainly seem more successful than me. I can claim no porn stars as friends, although I have known some politicians. But the pleasure I get from reading is so sublime, I feel everyone should share it.

    I hope my earlier comments did not seem antagonistic. Just a little hot give and take. I always like when you join the discussion.

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