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.

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.

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, Salon.com

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.

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.