The great books we haven't read.

All about fiction.
Oct. 30 2007 11:36 AM

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.

Six years ago, Slateasked critics to reveal their "gravest literary omissions": the most important books they'd never read. Norman Podhoretz confessed that he'd tried, and failed, to finish Bleak House. TheNew Yorker'sAlice Truax said she was particularly weak on American novels: Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sister Carrie.

For this year's fall fiction issue, we've sent our old survey question to a different group: contemporary authors. It turns out that professional writers find it just as hard to get through the classics as the rest of us. Never managed to finish Ulysses? You're in good company.

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Since it didn't seem fair to dwell on sins of omission, we offered an alternative question: What's your guiltiest pleasure? As you'll see, some authors took this opportunity to drag skeletons out of their literary closets.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Amy Bloom
Alas, Moby-Dick. It's not that I haven't tried. It's not that I don't appreciate the brilliant use of actual events (the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820 when repeatedly attacked by an 80-ton sperm whale, the mighty Mocha Dick), deft use of ghosts, allegorical doubloons, and symbolic what have you, or Melville's Great Name Hall of Fame (including Starbuck, Daggoo, Tashtego, and Fedallah). I do appreciate it all ... in theory. In practice, I have never gotten past the 100th page. However, unlike some other books I've been happy, even gleeful, to give up on (Beowulf, The Faerie Queen), I plan to continue chasing this damned thing until I catch it.  

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter.

Stephen Carter
The most talked-about book I have never read is actually seven books—the entire Harry Potter series. Everyone I know who has read them loves them, and I keep telling myself that next year I will get started. But I never seem to find the time.

My guiltiest pleasure? Dear me. I used to have an absolute thing for the novels of Robert Ludlum, even though most of them repeated the same formula. I understand that some editors even have a name for it, the Ludlum Formula, after the style of the titles of his books. But the real answer, if we must name only one, is probably Gone With the Wind.

Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks.

Jennifer Egan
One classic that I seem to be perpetually on the verge of reading is Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. It mystifies me that I still haven't managed to read this novel; I've owned it for a few years, since an acquaintance who shares my opinion of what constitutes the most devastating single moment in 20th-century fiction (the scene with the punch bowl in Pnin) cited it as one of her all-time favorites. And it isn't that I haven't liked Mann's other work; The Magic Mountain was a seminal book for me in my early 20s, and Death in Venice had a big impact on me later on. It isn't even that I've begun reading it and failed to get traction, because truthfully I've never cracked the thing. Why? There seems to be no good answer. So ... I'm walking to the shelf, I'm picking it up, and I just may start it tonight.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter.

Curtis Sittenfeld Although I nod knowingly when people refer to Voldemort or Muggles, here is my dirty secret: I have read only the first 72 pages of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and not a word of any of the six others in the series. But wait—it gets worse! At the time I read those 72 pages, I was the writer-in-residence at a boys' school in Washington, D.C., and I'd borrowed the book from a student who lived down the hall from my dorm apartment. Now, more than four years later, I have moved twice to different cities, the boy who lent it to me has graduated from high school and is well into college (for all I know, he has a beard and children), J.K. Rowling has apparently writ her last about Harry, and I STILL have the book. That I was unable to get through such a beloved book is embarrassing; that I committed the sin of borrowing it (from a kid, no less) and not returning it is truly shameful.

James Joyce's Ulysses.

Laura Lippman
I've never made it through James Joyce's Ulysses. To be precise, I've never made it past Page 2. I have a 20-hour plane trip in my future, however, and I have to pack lightly, so maybe I'll try an audio version on my iPod. As for guilty pleasures—I'm trying to get away from the notion that there is such a thing as guilt-inducing reading. So, while those who love me may squirm at my habit of rereading Marjorie Morningstar every year, or even my compulsive need to revisit the complete works of Lenora Mattingly Weber, a Denver-based YA writer popular in the 1950s and '60s, my conscience is clear.

Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov.

J.D. McClatchy Hardly a day goes by that I don't see somewhere in print an impassioned reference to some classic I haven't read. Why, having read so many over so many years, am I still embarrassed to be caught short? Am I certain that Oblomov will change my life the way Middlemarch once did? That Luis Vaz de Camões could rival Hart Crane? The fact is, at the age of 62, I know I don't have enough time left to read all the books I wish to or should. So, I've shrugged, and narrowed my regrets. And though I'd most like to spend my time now properly rereading classics I encountered at too young an age to fathom, I am also determined to make my way through a few (I will confess only a little of my shame) not yet read: The Tale of Genji, the notebooks of Paul Valéry, and dozens of Balzac novels.

George Eliot's Middlemarch.

Angie Cruz Awhile back I interviewed a reputable American author, and she said that unless a writer read George Eliot's Middlemarch, she didn't consider them an educated person. This was right before my first novel, Soledad, was published, when I was feeing vulnerable and insecure. I bought the book, and it sat by my bedside for a long while. I would pick it up and put it down because other books were more important to me at the time. But the comment always stuck with me, in this irritating way, and I felt guilt for not reading it. More recently, while living in Italy, I seemed to have been the only writer or "intellectual" who hadn't read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. Eyebrows arched, lips puckered in disapproval when I admitted to my ignorance. But it no longer irritates me. I often respond with, Have you read ... ?—and smile to myself, knowing that I have a few books of my own that are most important.

Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

Benjamin Percy I gobble up horror novels like Halloween candy. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. The Shining by Stephen King. The Exorcist by William Blatty. At the Mountain of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. There is something voluptuous about entertaining the nightmare, about putting your foot over the edge of the cliff and drawing it back with a smile and a shiver. The best horror stories do so much more than frighten me with a Boo. They make me value the relative normalcy and well-being of my life. They provide psychic relief by showing me a world where the bad guy is obviously bad, the good guy good. They allow me to lance the boil, to let the poisons out, by experiencing (even if only vicariously) the worst the imagination has to offer. It's not a guilty pleasure; it's a pleasure. And though some may roll their eyes and turn up their noses, I remain happily, darkly in love.

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