The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 6 2001 9:00 PM

The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame

Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and other books that professional readers skip. 

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Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Everyone tells me how great it is. I believe them. I believe them so fully, in fact, that I've decided to let their testimonials be the final word in the matter. What could I add to their tributes, after all? Nothing, I suspect. It's a great book, perhaps the best book on Vietnam there is.


Robert McCrum, the Observer

1. The Mill on the Floss

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

3. Shakespeare's Henry VIII

Louis Menand, The New Yorker

I have started four times but have never gotten past the middle of the second volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu—and yet (this is the shameful part) this has not prevented me from calling other books "Proustian." 

Laura Miller,

War and Peace
is the book I feel most insecure about not having read. Almost as bad as I feel for not remembering a single damn thing from Madame Bovary besides the black stuff Emma vomits up at the end after taking poison. Continental literature is definitely my weakest area—no Magic Mountain, etc.—and I'll probably never catch up because the prospect fills me with ennui. Whenever I'm feeling inadequate, though, I remind myself that I've read The Faerie Queen and usually that does the trick. Everyone has some monstrous, nearly impenetrable book they did manage to finish and I recommend making that a personal talisman.

Cynthia Ozick

A book I've been told, again and again, it's imperative to read is Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I hope to remedy this omission. I find, however, that I am re-reading more and more. Oh, if there were but world enough and time! This is the main reason to aspire to an afterlife: to sit under a celestial tree, with no library fines, and the library right at one's elbow (the library preferred to the bookstore, at least in heaven).

A book that is seriously neglected (and periodically rediscovered) is A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll, first published in 1951 (Ruth Wisse discusses this remarkable novel, and its remarkable language, in The Modern Jewish Canon). The Second Scroll is a unique work, written in consummate prose.

Norman Podhoretz

One of the books I'm ashamed of never having read is Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. But what most bothers me is that I have so much trouble finishing novels by Dickens. From line to line, and from sentence to sentence, I think he may well have been the greatest master of the English language since Shakespeare. But despite many repeated efforts, and with a few exceptions (mainly Great Expectations and Hard Times), I always seem to get stuck somewhere in the middle of his major novels, or I lose patience with characters like Little Dorrit, and the famous sentimentality that one is supposed to discount or forgive or understand finally gets me down. Still, whereas I doubt that I'll ever get around to Musil, I live in hopes that some day I'll pick up Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House and find myself deriving as much pleasure from the whole as I do from the first hundred pages or so.

Carlin Romano, the Philadelphia Inquirer

Before I die, I'd like to know which came first, the War or the Peace. Also plan to get through the Bible some day, since people keep referring to it. These days I feel most guilty about not having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I keep picking it up backward, or opening it and finding blank pages, and then I get frustrated and give up. By the by, don't forget book pride. I recently read Crime and Punishment for a class. Excellent story. The crime comes first.

Judith Shulevitz, the New York Times

OK. Here are two authors I've never read a word of: Henry David Thoreau and Evelyn Waugh. I know I should be ashamed, but instead I blame my ignorance entirely on them. Thoreau because he occasioned those unbearable posters put up in classrooms everywhere during the '70s—you know, the ones with the boy facing the sunset and the words "March to the beat of a different drummer" (or whatever the phrase is); and Waugh because Anglophiles I know are always congratulating each other on this passage or that one, and I'd rather deny myself the pleasure of reading him than admit that they might actually be on to something.

Polly Shulman, Newsday

Well, I've never really read James Joyce. I don't like Milton. I tried several times, even recently, to read him, and I can see that he has great vision and power of language, but I find that I don't like his moral world. There's Stephen King—people love him but I just find him too scary. I really am a little ashamed that I haven't read Invisible Man. I always think, I'll read this when I'm feeling a little stronger, when I have the spiritual wherewithal to continue with it.

Up through college, I hated Dickens. I thought that he was sentimental, he didn't really understand people, he used too many words. But when I tried him again later, I saw he was great. This was a lesson to me that just because you don't like something now doesn't mean that you won't later on. Read what you want to read! The books you pick up and think, "What could anyone have ever seen in this?" are the ones you should put down and try again later. The world is full of intellectual pleasures. There's no point in slogging through a book you're not connecting with, when you could be tearing through one that's changing your life. Not everyone loves to read, and that's OK, too. Better to watch a great movie or solve a math problem than to put yourself to sleep trying to read a book you don't care about.


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