The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame

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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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In his novel Changing Places, David Lodge describes a literary parlor game called "Humiliations" in which participants confess, one by one, titles of books they've never read. The genius of the game is that each player gains a point for each fellow player who's read the book—in other words, the more accomplished the reader, the lower his or her score. Lodge's winner is an American professor who, in a rousing display of one-downmanship, finally announces that he's never read Hamlet.

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What would happen if book critics and literary journalists played a round of Lodge's game? Last week Culturebox polled a slew of them, asking them to reveal their gravest literary omissions: the books they most wish they'd read, the ones they're ashamed of never having touched, or the ones they've been trying to tackle for ages. Over half of those polled were kind (and brave) enough to reply, and the results are printed below. 

The point of this exercise wasn't to embarrass anyone, of course. In fact, the answers are downright reassuring: Book guilt and frustration are universal conditions, and are far more acute among critics than casual readers. The most distressing revelation is that many of the authors deemed most impenetrable—Dickens, Hawthorne, the Brontës, Melville—are mainstays on high-school and college freshman reading lists. Students will either take heart or sigh in frustration. On the one hand, it's comforting to know that the pros couldn't slog through these books either. But on the other: If the experts couldn't get through them, how are you supposed to?

This month, Slate's "Book Club" will be filling some literary gaps of its own. Over the next three weeks, look for discussions of The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead; Anna Karenina (by Tolstoy, the unrivaled champion of this survey); and Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson; all chosen because the participants deeply regretted never having read them. For the record, other books nominated for this treatment include Lucky Jim, The Red and the Black, Don Quixote, The Education of Henry Adams, Moby Dick, anything by Trollope, Philosophical Investigations, Daniel Deronda, and The Mill on the Floss.

In the meantime, take comfort in the list below. Post your own shameful omissions here—and tell us what happens when you play Humiliations at your next dinner party. In Changing Places, Lodge's professor wins the game and loses his job because of it. At least I think he does. I'd tell you for certain, but—blush, stammer—I've never, despite my best intentions and highest expectations of satisfaction, read any David Lodge.

Richard Bernstein, the New York Times

OK, I never read Ulysses from beginning to end, but then again, neither, I believe, has anybody else, including most of the writers and scholars who declared it the greatest English-language book of the century in that Modern Library list last year. I have read the first one hundred pages at least three times, and then, longing for a story, I never got further. What else? Proust. I've read Swann's Way, I'm happy to say, but the other volumes are sitting on my shelf waiting for the restoration of transatlantic journeys by sea. I've read very few of the works of the last 10 or so winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Richard Eder, the New York Times

Every time I wandered into the woods in The Scarlet Letter I developed literary poison ivy. Hawthorne remains terra incognita. Also have read absolutely nothing by Balzac, neither in French nor in English or Icelandic translation. But shame? Not really. I've always thought that some packages should be left for opening late in life, to fend off senile apathy. Likewise the best age to discover ballet is 70 or 80, an anti-gravitational remedy for increasing downward pull.

Anne Fadiman, the American Scholar

I've started War and Peace three times but never finished it. I got through Anna Karenina only because I had no other books in my backpack on a long-ago cross-country-skiing trip in Norway and was stuck in a freezing hut for three days with the flu. Thank God for the flu; having both books on my unread list would be so mortifying I wouldn't even confess it.

Walter Kirn, GQ

The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil. If you're not going to read one allegedly great modern novel, this is the one not to read, it seems to me. It looks great on the shelf, though, especially in its latest multi-volume trade paperback edition. My basic problem: If the man has no qualities, why does it take so long to tell his story? No literary professional I've ever met has answered this question to my satisfaction.

Anything by any of the Brontës. The movies made from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are better than the novels themselves—I can't prove this, of course, having never read a page of either book, and yet I have this sense, this feeling. What's more, the penalty for being wrong here seems minimal and one that I can pay.

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