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