The Great Novel I Never Read
The Sound and the Fury, Swann's Way,and other books that novelists skipped.
Click here to read more from Slate's Fall Fiction Week.
John Haskell I'm in Germany at the moment, teaching American literature to German students, and one of the books I've assigned them to read, because I've never read it, is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I haven't read it in part because I've assumed the narrative has something to do with aliens from another planet. But now, feeling slightly alien myself, living about an hour from Dresden, a group of students calling me Herr Professor, I'm going to give it a try.
Myla Goldberg I've never read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. There, I've said it. I've started it a few times, but something always seems to happen to me around Page 20. I thought there might be hope after I read Orlando and enjoyed it, but then I went back to the Lighthouse and found that its door was still closed, not to mention cold to the touch. And since we're getting all confessional, I'll go ahead and admit that I've got the same problem with Borges: Whenever anyone describes Labyrinths or Ficciones, I get incredibly excited. But try as I might, I can't actually read them all the way through. As much as I admire and value intellectualism and experimentation, I've discovered that unless a book has a throbbing heart as well as a sexy brain, I feel like the story is a specimen in a sealed glass jar and not a living, breathing creature I want to take by the hand and talk to for hours on end.
Jonathan Ames I haven't read the Bible, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu, or any of the Greek tragedies, though I was a palace guard in a college production of Oedipus, and my father used to call me Oedipus when I was a small boy and he witnessed me kissing my mother. He also would cry out "Oedipus!" when he beckoned me to the dinner table. At the time, I didn't know who Oedipus was and assumed that my father's nickname for me was Yiddish for "good boy," since the occasional Yiddish word, such as tsures (misfortune), was often heard in my household.
I will say that I have several copies of the above-mentioned books. How it works is this: In 1993, for example, it strikes me that it's very embarrassing that I haven't read Swann's Way, so I pick it up in a bookstore. Then in 2007, it strikes me that it's every embarrassing that I haven't read Swann's Way, and having forgotten (not very Proustian of me) my purchase in 1993, I repurchase the book 14 years later.
What have I read? All of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at least three times. I have also read all of Charles Bukowski's fiction, Don Quixote, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and anything by P.G. Wodehouse with the word Jeeves in the title. I still haven't read Swann's Way.
There are many important writers I should have read: Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Czeslaw Milosz, among others. Those omissions make me feel bad as a reader, but the one who makes me feel bad as a person is a writer I have read: Thomas Pynchon. I had to read The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland in college, and I pretended to like them because it seemed so clear that not to like them made you fundamentally uncool. The literary boys I hung out with in college had all read Gravity's Rainbow (or said they had), and a couple of the really cute ones had read V., too. This morning, I reread the first chapter of Vineland, wondering whether I might have matured since the first time I tried it, in 1994. Nope. I couldn't get through even two pages of my husband's copy of Gravity's Rainbow, but I did note with frustration that the spine is convincingly broken. I'm sure I finished Vineland in college (because I am the type of person who finished all the books assigned—i.e., the type of person who can't understand Thomas Pynchon). The only thing I remember about it is the character Frenesi, and all I recall about her is my professor explaining that her name is supposed to sound like "free and easy." Why didn't I get that? If Thomas Pynchon wrote a book about someone like me, her name would be Nixhip Squareberger, and she would probably be working for the Feds.
Lucinda Rosenfeld I keep meaning to remedy the situation, but I've never read a word of Faulkner—not The Sound and the Fury, none of it. Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of modernism, and I think I got it into my head that Faulkner was the worst offender of the purposefully long-winded/convoluted-sentence school of writing. But that's really no excuse, since I love Henry James.
Margaret Atwood Never read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy ... somehow I just didn't know about it. But now that I do, I will. It was certainly much talked about at the time because it was censored by the Russian authorities.
John Crowley There are books we haven't read but which it's fair to let people assume we have—my list would include On the Origin of Species and The Wealth of Nations. But books that everybody has read except me? I guess I don't mind people knowing I haven't read Gone With the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird, but Frankenstein? One I most regret and am ashamed of and plan to remedy: Leaves of Grass.
Jess Row In my case, it isn't so much one particular book as a whole era in the American novel, namely, the '50s, '60s, and '70s. I have yet to finish a single novel by Norman Mailer, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, John Barth, John Hawkes, James Purdy, or William Burroughs, and I haven't read nearly enough of the other heavy hitters: Pynchon, Bellow, Updike, Welty, Styron. Somehow in my generation (I was born in 1974), many of these writers seem to have become reference points without being widely read. Or perhaps that's just my own sorry justification for not doing my homework.
Marina Lewycka In 1964, a 17-year-old innocent from a country town, I arrived at university clutching my copy of Wordsworth and brimming with eager anticipation. All the second-year boys had turned out to welcome the "fresher" girls—although they were too cool to show it, they were brimming with eager anticipation, too. Straightaway, my bright Cleopatra-lined eyes fell upon Jez.
Jez was tall and dark, with moody eyes, a black leather jacket, and brown hair that waved right down onto his collar. A self-rolled cigarette clung to his pouting lower lip. He was exactly the type my parents had warned me about. Our eyes met. An hour or so later, we were fumbling on the bed in his room.
Maybe I was a bit startled by the speed of developments, or maybe my parents' warning still echoed in my ears—something made me hold back, and Jez realized that my education was incomplete. He reached under his pillow and produced a tattered copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.