The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame

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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Alice Truax, TheNew Yorker

There are so many omissions in my reading that the word "omissions" doesn't really seem to cover it; it's more of a Swiss-cheese type of situation. Among the classics? Well, let's just pick three: Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sister Carrie (I'm particularly weak on Americans, due to the vagaries of my education). But there is almost nothing that I've tried to read and put down. Perhaps because I'm usually in a reading group of one sort or another, which is a very helpful way of overcoming one's initial resistance to a long book. (Last year, we read Flaubert's A Sentimental Education, which I loved, but which I probably wouldn't have picked up on my own.) In any case, I now quite cheerfully admit my ignorance when it comes to the Great Books, and I'm almost wistful for the shame I felt when an Oxford professor and friend of mine once exclaimed, "You can't be serious: You've never read The Romance of the Rose?" I think that I'm more embarrassed now by the contemporary books I feel I should have read but haven't gotten around to, and on that lengthy list I will also just choose three at random: DeLillo's Underworld, Roth's The Human Stain, and Morrison's Paradise. For the most part, though, my guilt is generalized; I simply wish I read more. For me, it is like going to the gym, a habit that must be constantly cultivated. I console myself with the thought that it is far better to live in a world with too many books than too few.


Garry Wills

I most regret not being able to read the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah in Hebrew—some of the greatest literature sealed off from me.

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times reporter and the author of The Obamas.

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