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Ok fine so I'll never read Ulysses. But we can still talk about it.
August 1, 2007 8:43 AM   Subscribe

How to discuss books that one hasn’t read... "in order to . . . talk without shame about books we haven’t read, we should rid ourselves of the oppressive image of a flawless cultural grounding, transmitted and imposed [on us] by the family and by educational institutions, an image which we try all our lives in vain to match up to. For truth in the eyes of others matters less than being true to ourselves, and this truth is only accessible to those who liberate themselves from the constraining need to appear cultured, which both tyrannizes us and prevents us from being ourselves."
posted by miss lynnster (88 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I haven't read the link yet, but I'm going to say that it sucks anyhow.
posted by adamrice at 8:49 AM on August 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


What we need is a way to talk about sitcoms we haven't watched... after all, this is where the time we could spend reading goes... what do we do with the time we could spend watching sitcoms? Re-runs of other, older sitcoms no doubt... ergo our need to discuss the sitcoms we should have seen but didn't.

Anyone who hasn't read Jane Austin at least twice will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes... ditto Douglas Adams. And Ulysses.

Oh wait. Growing Pains is on. Excuse me.
posted by ewkpates at 8:53 AM on August 1, 2007


this also applies to books you've read but forgotten.
posted by bruce at 8:53 AM on August 1, 2007


Fuck, I don't even read my own writing.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:56 AM on August 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Hi. Uh, my name is, uh, gompa.

[audience: Hi, gompa!]

Yeah. Uh, I never finished The Sound and the Fury. There was a kid, I think, and he was, you know, he was running around in the tall grass on the edge of the town or something, and I couldn't keep track of who was doing what actually and my head hurt a bit and I had David Marsh's Who biography right there on the bedside table and I just . . . [chokes, swallows hard] . . . I just put down the Faulkner and went straight to the rock bio.

[audible gasp]

And then Tosches' thing on Jerry Lee Lewis, and a couple issues of Vanity Fair, and before I knew what was happening I was mainlining Nick Hornby's latest, which was no High Fidelity but at least you could tell who was talking, you know?

Anyway, it's been four years since I last tried Faulkner. I've had a bunch of Dos Passos since then, and I actually read it all . . . well, not the third volume of the USA Trilogy, I mean I got it after the first two, you know? I just, I mean the Faulkner made my head hurt so bad . . .

[polite applause, sniffles]

Anyway, my name is gompa and I'm . . . I'm a classic-aholic.

[general applause]
posted by gompa at 9:00 AM on August 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm reminded of a time in college, maybe 18 years ago, when I was taking a Brazilian Lit class. I was a general fuckup back then, and I'd been assigned leading a class discussion on one of the novels. Being said fuckup, I didn't read the novel. Instead, I read the introduction, the first page and the last page. Using all my acting skill, I boldly lead the discussion, got praised for both my teaching and my lit-crit skills, and got an A in the course.

There's a moral in there somewhere, I'm sure. Something about cheating myself and being dishonest, maybe. But at the time, I felt cocky and invincible.
posted by grumblebee at 9:01 AM on August 1, 2007 [5 favorites]


Actually, I guess that should be classic-phobic or something. "Classic-aholic"? That don't make no sense . . .

*hangs head in shame*

*slinks off in search of Lindsay Lohan rehab thread*

posted by gompa at 9:02 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee:

I've done the same thing in lit courses in college. Sometimes you just don't have the time to read everything. I heartily accepted that notion early on :).
posted by fallenposters at 9:02 AM on August 1, 2007


I find it easiest to just judge the book by some handy external metric such as the cover.

I wonder if this guy has an information on how to ban books without reading them.
posted by DU at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've based my entire life around being able to talk convincingly on subjects I know nothing about.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:04 AM on August 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


With The Sound and the Fury, read the last quarter of the book first. That is all.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 9:09 AM on August 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


I know if it's a really great book if I am unaccountably afraid of it.

Ulysses, I'm looking at you. And trembling.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:22 AM on August 1, 2007


An unnamed professor with whom I am acquainted is famous for saying of any book ever written, "I'm familiar with that."

Its an ingenious strategy. Could mean read cover to cover. Could mean skimmed lightly. Could mean riffled through in a bookstore. Could mean seen an ad for it in the newspaper. And it could even mean - and here's the best part - now that you've mentioned the title, I have a familiarity with the book.
posted by googly at 9:24 AM on August 1, 2007 [12 favorites]


I still remember the epiphany I had when I had almost finished The Sound and the Fury: oh wait, there are two characters named Quentin! Knowing that beforehand would have made for a much easier read.
posted by Rangeboy at 9:25 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Echoing grumblebee and fallenposters. When I was in school, I developed a special talent for being able to expound on books I had never read (and passing tests based on said books). Looking back, I really don't know how I got away with it, but I did. Now, though, I feel like I cheated myself out of some good book experiences (because I'll never sit down and read the ones I missed, even though I tell myself I will).
posted by amyms at 9:26 AM on August 1, 2007


A word here for reading it and not talking about it. Gives you and those you aren't talking to more time to read.
posted by jennydiski at 9:30 AM on August 1, 2007


When I was in school, I developed a special talent for being able to expound on books I had never read (and passing tests based on said books).

What makes you people think this is unique? This is standard operating procedure for 7th grade through senior year in college for most liberal arts majors. It's called The Golden Shovel. And it's probably the best preparation for a career in sales, marketing, PR or middle management that can be had.
posted by spicynuts at 9:32 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


There are no books I haven't read.
posted by vronsky at 9:38 AM on August 1, 2007


Now if only I could find a way to look as though I've done exercise I haven't done.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:40 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have a book review blog, so this is really of interest to me. I'm partly with the man, and partly not.

He does seem to be arguing for a certain intellectual honestly and unpretentiousness. I'm in full agreement that we shouldn't be afraid to admit we haven't read/don't know something, and certainly if we're going to proceed to talk about that unknown quantity anyway, we should disclose that information so our audience knows how seriously to take us.

But honesty and unpretentiousness is not the same thing as "license to run our mouths and make pronouncements on things we know nothing about". A profressor who has never read Ulysses has no business referring to it regularly in class, unless it's along the lines of "If you want to read another book on the same theme, I understand Ulysses is an interesting counterpart." But otherwise... dude, read the damn book or find other material you have read to reference. As a professor, it's your job to thoroughly know whereof you speak. Do your homework or get off the lecture platform.
posted by orange swan at 9:40 AM on August 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


What makes you people think this is unique?

What makes you think we think it's unique? I never said it was unique. No one else did either. It's certainly not unique, but it's a handy ability to cultivate, and most of us were simply acknowledging that fact (as you did in your own comment, spicynuts)... Sheesh, lighten up, relax, go read a book or something.
posted by amyms at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Speaking of lighten up......maybe read my comment with tongue in cheek maybe?
posted by spicynuts at 9:43 AM on August 1, 2007


I'm familiar with the Golden Shovel.
posted by dontoine at 9:45 AM on August 1, 2007


An unnamed professor with whom I am acquainted is famous for saying of any book ever written, "I'm familiar with that."

It *is* a good strategy. Can also be applied to artists, records, films, and persons of the preferred gender.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:46 AM on August 1, 2007


Speaking of lighten up......maybe read my comment with tongue in cheek maybe?

Will do, spicynuts. Sorry I misinterpreted your comment... Maybe I need to go read a book.
posted by amyms at 9:51 AM on August 1, 2007


Fine, don't feel ashamed to admit you've not read a certain work - but that admission is about all you have to add to a discussion of that work. "Never read it, sounds good, I'll be back to talk about it once I know what the fuck I'm talking about."

If a professor of mine wrote an essay such as Bayard's, I'd transfer out of his class with a quickness. If I wanna hear gasbags talking about books they've not read, I'll go loiter in a Barnes & Noble near the classics section.

I do, however, plan to cite this essay next time I don't RTFA. Don't take me to task for lazy reading! Expressing my uninformed opinion helps me be true to myself!
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:56 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I hate this, but it's strangely appropriate.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:00 AM on August 1, 2007


There's a moral in there somewhere, I'm sure.

The moral of that story is that you can bullshit your way through a lot of library arts college courses because there are no "right" or "wrong" answers. I majored in Film Studies, and once received a mark of 10/10 (which should have meant it was a flawless thesis backed up by perfect writing) on an essay I wrote about Red River, which I had skimmed through but not really watched. The fact that I repeatedly mis-named the film's main character did not seem to matter to my prof (who was kind enough to point out that in the version of Red River he'd seen, Buster was a minor character, not Montgomery Clift's).

This reminds me of the recent thread about movies people had walked out on. Bookwise, I've bailed on Atlas Shrugged, Riddley Walker, Moby Dick, The Da Vinci Code, American Psycho, Foucault's Pendulum, Skinny Legs And All, Dune, Foundation, The Bible, and, yes, The Sound and the Fury, among many, many others.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:14 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


That should be liberal arts college courses. Not that you can't bullshit your way through library college courses, too.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:15 AM on August 1, 2007


Literature will never really be able to escape its fetishization of words so the fixation on reading isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Without this kind of involuntary dues system the study of literature becomes "unserious," perhaps even playful which would significantly degrade its ability to confer status and exclusivity and generally reinforce the status quo. Like the old Latin Bibles such novels were more decorations designed to oppress rather than useful knowledge. There's some consolation that the pretense that each and every classic novel is a special, irreducible and isolated snowflake makes the entire enterprise so economically infeasible. The prevalence of English departments aside, we can still look forwards to the day when all great works go the way of poetry.
posted by nixerman at 10:33 AM on August 1, 2007


Card Cheat, your Red River story reminds me of my friend who had just seen Braveheart. A bunch of us were talking about it, and I mentioned something about William Wallace.

"Who?" he said.

"William Wallace. The main character?"

"Ohh..." he said. "So that's who he was. I mostly just fast-forwarded through through the whole thing, except for the battle sequences."

"What? Wait, who did you think the main character was?"

"I dunno." He shrugged. "Jack Braveheart or something."
posted by Greg Nog at 10:38 AM on August 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Shallow and pedantic.
posted by LordSludge at 10:53 AM on August 1, 2007


Also, this Bayard character sounds like kind of a herb, but given that I haven't actually read the works that are brought up in the second link, I don't feel like I'm qualified to judge his argument.

SEE HOW THAT WORKS, BAYARD?
posted by Greg Nog at 10:54 AM on August 1, 2007


Please excuse my bile, but this professor is a shitbag. If you do not like to read, do NOT BOTHER teaching literature. People who LIKE to read and who DO IT WELL AND QUICKLY TOO should teach (and study) literature. It's a goddamned specialization of skills, and if you don't have it, go the fuck away. Philistines the rest of us may be, but we will have to accept ourselves and stop being lying, deceiving rat-asses whose self-importance is the only thing that matters.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 10:54 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think this guy seems okay. Surely you can have some kind of discussion about a book you haven't read, although not a very deep one, I guess. Better to have everything out in the open.

The Card Cheat: how far did you get in Foucault's Pendulum? It really picks up towards the end; I couldn't put it down at all for the last 150 pages.

I did bail on Gravity's Rainbow, though. (Actually, I haven't totally given up yet. It's still sitting on my bedside table with a bookmark in it. It hasn't moved in two years...)
posted by equalpants at 11:01 AM on August 1, 2007


The fact that I repeatedly mis-named the film's main character did not seem to matter to my prof (who was kind enough to point out that in the version of Red River he'd seen, Buster was a minor character, not Montgomery Clift's).

This reminds me of a brilliant story told by Stuart Kaminsky, who was one of my professors in radio-TV-film at Northwestern years ago: he told us about a grad student who, in writing her thesis on the films of Richard Attenborough had confused him with nature documentarian David Attenborough. Her entire thesis was spent making what Kaminsky said was a very believeable rationalization of how one man could make films so disparate as "A Bridge Too Far" and "Life On Earth". As he told the tale, he said he was willing to pass her on the basis of the coherence of the argument IN SPITE OF its complete erroneousness (the rest of the committee felt otherwise).
posted by briank at 11:12 AM on August 1, 2007 [5 favorites]


I recently bailed on the Pratchett / Gaiman collab Good Omens due to it boring me to tears. And I like those two.
posted by everichon at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2007


he said he was willing to pass her on the basis of the coherence of the argument IN SPITE OF its complete erroneousness

Jeeze. Or else he was willing to pass her on the basis of the fact that he was her advisor and presumably hadn't bothered to actually supervise (or read) the work of his student, or else because he didn't simply catch the error himself and was ashamed to admit it.

Perhaps I'm being a bit uncharitable, but I shudder to think about the kind of scholarly work that a fellow with Bayard's attitudes would be willing to sing off on.
posted by washburn at 11:22 AM on August 1, 2007


I have yet to get past 1/3rd of Gravity's Rainbow. I wish I had the attention span to keep all of its characters and events in a coherent ball in my mind.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:23 AM on August 1, 2007


The Sound and the Fury feels like, um, bags of sand.
posted by Cookiebastard at 11:26 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Looking back, I really don't know how I got away with it, but I did.

Your profs didn't read the stuff either?
posted by Foosnark at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2007


The Card Cheat: Bookwise, I've bailed on Atlas Shrugged, Riddley Walker . . .

Oh, oh, dear. You MUST go back and give Riddley Walker another chance. It's tough, yes (so tough, in fact, that in seminars I've led on literacy I've used the first chapter to show other English teachers, expert readers all, what it's like for someone who can't read well to open a book and not know what the holy fuck is going on. It's that tough.), but it's so worth it once it *clicks* and you start understanding the language, the allusions, and how and what the names and places are named and what they mean.
posted by John of Michigan at 11:39 AM on August 1, 2007


The Card Cheat: how far did you get in Foucault's Pendulum? It really picks up towards the end; I couldn't put it down at all for the last 150 pages.

Fewer than 25 pages, I think. I didn't even get through the part where the main character walks through a museum and endlessly pontificates on the stuff he walks by before my eyeballs started to melt.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:41 AM on August 1, 2007


As I Lay Dying is in strict chronological order, even though each chapter is narrated by a different character. This helps when dead characters start talking and when you run into the sentence/paragraph/chapter "my mother was a fish" (which makes total sense once you realize who's talking).
posted by kirkaracha at 11:41 AM on August 1, 2007


John of Michigan: of all the books on that list, Riddley is about the only one I'd be inclined to try again, as over the intervening years I've developed a taste for post-apocalyptic fiction...thanks for the recommendation.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:43 AM on August 1, 2007


Its history, not literature, but I am two pages into The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and that shit is going back to the library.
posted by ND¢ at 11:53 AM on August 1, 2007


I also didn't read the article in question.
posted by ND¢ at 11:54 AM on August 1, 2007


Only skimmed the comments too.
posted by ND¢ at 11:56 AM on August 1, 2007


Come again?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:56 AM on August 1, 2007


Too soon.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2007


So, Professor Bayard, you admit that the whole academic thing is a scam?

That the purpose of the four-year degree is to keep middle-class kids off the streets and out of the job market until they mature a little more?

Your candor is refreshing.
posted by jason's_planet at 11:58 AM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I talk about books all the time that I haven't read, or haven't read completely.

Does someone really need to read all of "On the Road" to have an intelligent opinion about it? I didn't finish it, and yet I tell people in all honesty that its one of my favorite books. Because there are bits of it that I loved so much and read and re-read until I memorized them. But a lot of it is just tedious.

Other books I haven't finished, yet I still feel I can converse intelligently about: Infinite Jest, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow.

There are some books that are more interesting to read about than they are interesting to read.
posted by empath at 12:01 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


What a fascinating definition of tyranny.

I must remember to use it sometime.
posted by aramaic at 12:21 PM on August 1, 2007


A coworker of mine recently showed up with a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. At first I got a little too excited, as I'd studied Kant in my former life as a philosophy major. I was surprised how much I remembered. When I asked here why she was choosing such an endeavor she replied "I'm just really into metaphysics right now." Unsure of what she meant I asked, well, what she meant, to which she replied "Oh, you know, how reality is what we make it, how everything is really one....." &c. I stopped listening when she brought up something about crystals.

Anyway, it's been awhile, months, and she hasn't brought up Kant since.

And I respect that.

(Oh, and I guess I should post a confession. I never read the second or third critiques.)
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:24 PM on August 1, 2007


Jeez, this ability to bullshit through critiques and et cetera is good, but when I read I take it a point to read through -- otherwise, I haven't finished the book. I can't imagine anyone discussing a book like Infinite Jest or Gravity's rainbow without finishing it -- sometimes the plot changes in a single page, or sometimes even in one sentence. The books' themes aren't complete otherwise. Gah.

I did only watch the first half of 'The Usual Suspects', though, and I'm willing to discuss it here.
posted by suedehead at 12:42 PM on August 1, 2007


Hmm. I expect a reviewer to have fully read the book he's reviewing (unless it's a reference book, which more or less by definition isn't meant to be read in order, cover to cover). I expect a literature professor to have fully read the book he's lecturing on. But if either of those want to draw a connection to some other book, which isn't the primary topic of their review/lecture, it doesn't bother me if they haven't read that other book. And informal discussions, such as Metafilter threads or cocktail parties? No, you don't have to have read a book to offer an opinion.

I often read synopses of classic works I haven't read. And, for that matter, of works I have read but mostly forgotten (otherwise, about all I'd be able to say about The Great Gatsby was that it was about a bunch of rich people, despite the fact that I did read it... ~20 years ago). Not so much to be able to discuss them, although that's a side benefit, but because I play a good amount of trivia and it's useful to know the basic plots and themes and major characters of classic works. I even have a favorite work I've never read: currently Shakespeare's King Lear (haven't seen it performed, either), but that tends to change frequently, as "favorite work I've never read" has a tendency to become a work I have read.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:19 PM on August 1, 2007


I have a friend who regularly reads the beginnings of novels and then sets them aside, apparently satiated. He says he reads enough to get the gist of it. He said this to me very non-chalantly several years ago and it has irritated me ever since.
posted by creasy boy at 1:19 PM on August 1, 2007


The important corollary to the "talent of bullshiting" is that, for the most part, humanities-type profs are incredible suckers for flattery. As somebody who breezed through college English courses, sometimes working hard and reading big long books, sometimes just making shit up, the important thing is to at least pay some attention to the lecture. Don't just give a plausible summary of a given book, give a plausible reading that follows what your prof told you and the rest of the class. This will work with the lowliest TA to some of the most widely published big-wigs in their respective fields.

And fwiw, I have read Ulysses. Don't remember a whole lot. Moby Dick is a tremendous novel and you're missing out if you haven't taken the time to read the whole thing at least twice. If you've read one Faulkner novel you've read them all, IMO, but it's certainly worth doing once.

Crime and Punishment -- that's my nemesis. I blame the crappy translation I own (an old paperback bought used). A given character goes by seven different names. Not good. But ya know, I've read Notes from the Underground. So I don't think I'm missing much.
posted by bardic at 1:42 PM on August 1, 2007


empath, I see where you're coming from regarding On The Road, but you at least read the passage where Kerouac talks about the superiority of the White Race, right?
posted by Greg Nog at 1:51 PM on August 1, 2007


Oh, yeah...Infinite Heft. Didn't finish that one, either.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:54 PM on August 1, 2007


For truth in the eyes of others matters less than being true to ourselves, and this truth is only accessible to those who liberate themselves from the constraining need to appear cultured, which both tyrannizes us and prevents us from being ourselves.

How old is this guy -- 19?
posted by jason's_planet at 1:56 PM on August 1, 2007


Moby Dick is worth reading. At the same time, my impression upon re-reading it as an adult a few years ago was roughly: the first fifth, high comedy; the last fifth, high tragedy; the middle three-fifths: a compendium of whale-science. Why?

I have read Ulysses several times. More worthy than Moby Dick, in my opinion.
posted by creasy boy at 2:15 PM on August 1, 2007


Many English grad students I have known, including myself, just don't have time to read anymore once involved in the serious study of literature. It's one of those ironies where what leads you to a thing is not what keeps you there.

I haven't read this thread, either, and yet I am commenting in it.
posted by jokeefe at 2:19 PM on August 1, 2007


Btw, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood is definitely the best least-known work of difficult modernist literature...and it's only 169 pages.
posted by creasy boy at 2:19 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


"For three bills, you got the works: A thin Jewish brunette would pretend to pick you up at the Museum of Modern Art, let you read her master's, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Elaine's over Freud's conception of women, and then fake a suicide of your choosing - the perfect evening, for some guys."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:26 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Faulkner is easy reading if you start out with a couple early books like "The Town" & "The Hamlet" and you find his cadence. Starting off with "As I Lay Dying" requires grim determination. I will never read Joyce again. It isn't worth it. For Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky the trick is to follow the main character or two or three and ignore the names of everybody else.

The suggestion about reading the first fifty pages to get the gist and bail as soon as it gets tiring is a most excellent one. If the guy can't suck you in after fifty pages, you and the book are just not meant to be.

Whenever you start getting bored, start skimming. This is how I finish most of the books I start reading. There aren't many books that deserve reading every word on every page. How do people read an entire Neal Stephenson novel? I would never want to hear any of this from a literature professor, however.

(Neal Stephenson is one of my all-time favorite authors in the proper measured dose.)
posted by bukvich at 2:35 PM on August 1, 2007


I cant find the source, but I once read an interview with Eco where he said he made the first chapter of Focault's pendulum a real pain in the ass to read, but essential to understanding the book.

This way, mediocre critics and pretentious assholes that just bought the book because it was fashionable and looks good on a coffee table, would never get past the first 25 pages.

Most people I know who claim to have read the book can not bullshit their way out of a simple question about any event past the first chapter.

Eco made sure to make the reward completely worthy if you make it to the end. One of my top 40 books.
posted by Dataphage at 2:52 PM on August 1, 2007


For Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky the trick is to follow the main character or two or three and ignore the names of everybody else.

Tolstoy is way easier to get through, IMO. Not that this necessarily makes him a better author, but I breezed through Anna Karenina, relatively speaking. You just have to realize that it's two separate novels, not a single one.
posted by bardic at 2:59 PM on August 1, 2007


How do people read an entire Neal Stephenson novel?

I love Neal Stephenson, especially Cryptonomicon, and have the read the book entirely through twice. The effort the author puts into exploring ideas is what sucks me in but I can see how it would turn other people off.

I’m an avid reader and delight in discussing anything I’ve read, from “Harry Potter” to “A Farewell to Arms,” because, for me, reading is about exposure to new ideas, theories, and possibilities.

How can I have an intelligent discussion about the regret that Edmond Dantes experiences after exacting his imperfect revenge in “The Count of Monte Cristo” with someone who has only read the back cover of the book, or worse, watched the inaccurate movie adaptation? Can a literary poser truly understand a book without absorbing the subtleties that can only be acquired through reading?

Few things piss me off more than someone spewing bullshit about a topic they know nothing about and I cringe every time I read a comment from someone above boasting about just that.

I am fine with the fact that I haven’t read certain classics, such as Tolstoy, and refrain from engaging in discussions about the novel because I have nothing of value to add to the conversation. Can’t others do the same?
posted by chicken nuglet at 3:24 PM on August 1, 2007


Tolstoy is way easier to get through, IMO. Not that this necessarily makes him a better author

Oh, man, I thought I was the only one. I don't know why, but for some reason it takes me forever to get through Dostoevsky--like, it's hard to actually physically pick up the book--even though I'm always absorbed in what's going on. Maybe it's just because the characters are always in such embarrassing, uncomfortable situations. Tolstoy is much easier for me.

The essay sections in War and Peace were pretty annoying, though. (I think it'd be fun to make students read War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged together, actually. They're so similar, and yet completely opposed...)
posted by equalpants at 3:49 PM on August 1, 2007


I've always loved to read and so have long been a naive student, assuming that everyone else has done the reading. It's not that I've never had to bullshit in my life, but getting away with it was always a source of depression to me, and whether or not teachers could tell, I found discussions less interesting if I didn't know what I was talking about... I am still surprised as a graduate student that there are students seemingly more interested in "passing" than in thinking. (reminds me a bit of some previous discussions)

It's true, though, that it's hard to remember everything you've read. I suppose if you're an expert in one thing you can reread every few years, but perhaps expecting any professor to maintain such a high level of knowledge in the whole history of western thought is setting ourselves up for this sort of thing...
posted by mdn at 4:00 PM on August 1, 2007


How can I have an intelligent discussion about the regret that Edmond Dantes experiences after exacting his imperfect revenge in “The Count of Monte Cristo” with someone who has only read the back cover of the book, or worse, watched the inaccurate movie adaptation?

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is a good example of the main problem. Text inspires a certain kind of fundamentalism in readers because, like Ideas, they appear to be unchanging. But I very much doubt anybody except the occasional scholar has read any of Dumas' work in its "true" form and yet this hasn't diminished the popularity of the work at all. It's possible to appreciate the themes and ideas in the work through reading the abridged, heavily abridged, and even cliff notes versions of the work. Heck even just given a semi-detailed plot summary an intelligent person could probably contribute significantly to any discussion of the work. It's not at all clear that reading a work will produce any deep understanding of a text and, similarly, it's not clear that an understanding of the text is only possible through reading it. A compelling argument can be made, especially for deeply symbolic works (the canonical example being the Bible), for letting the words "hang loosely" when trying to understand what's really going on in the work.
posted by nixerman at 4:12 PM on August 1, 2007


It's not at all clear that reading a work will produce any deep understanding of a text and, similarly, it's not clear that an understanding of the text is only possible through reading it.

I think that's true, but on the other hand, the "text" isn't the only thing you can discuss. There's also the tone, vocabulary, sentence structure, bits of dialogue, etc.--the words themselves, and the author's craft in choosing them. For these things, you'll probably need to actually read a good amount of the work.
posted by equalpants at 4:41 PM on August 1, 2007


Anyone who hasn't read Jane Austin at least twice will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes...

Once comfortably lounging against the wall, they will have the privilege of witnessing the trepanning & brain-up-ass-shoving of people commit the doubly-heinous crime of not only elevating her above the mildy satirical Mills & Boon realm where she properly belongs, but also of not being able to spell her name correctly, even whilst unduly praising her.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:59 PM on August 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


I quite like the “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubliés” (books he has read but forgotten) categorisation.

I'd say I've probably read a decent proportion of the 19th-20th Century canon, but I think that once a book's more than a few months behind you, you forget all but the barest bones of it.

Let's try a few, to test this:

* Ulysses: man goes about a day's business in Dublin, amidst flowery, stream-of-consciousness language. Eats liver in a castle tower for breakfast, beds his wife at the end. Walks along a beach & attends a funeral.

* Crime & Punishment: young man kills old woman with an axe. Suffers soul-torment & eventually confesses.

* Kafka: man is confounded by endless twisting demands from courts & bureaucracies.

* Proust: man reminisces endlessly about past people, places & events.

* The Man Without Qualities: fin-de-siecle Viennese hold endless parlour conversations. Nothing happens.

* Beckett: Nothing happens, amidst general bum-like squalor.

* Sartre: Man tries to animate lifeless characters, using a lightning rod to harness the energy of his tedious philosophical principles. Characters take revenge on their creator by frotting endlessly about the heavy responsibilities of freedom & choice. Nothing much happens.

* Catcher in the Rye: teenager is exiled from Sartre's novels for being too nauseatingly emo & seeks out a new life in America.

* Kerouac: Characters from soft drink & jeans advertisements travel back in time & go on a road trip.

* Catch-22: Characters from MASH travel back in time & re-enact the liberation of Iraq in a WW2 setting.

* Slaughterhouse 5: Aliens try to better the MASH characters by travelling backwards & forwards in time & bomb Dresden.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:22 PM on August 1, 2007 [5 favorites]


Maybe it's just because the characters are always in such embarrassing, uncomfortable situations

I agree with equalpants, I have no hesitation in describing Crime and Punishment as a work of genius, but I closed it trembling the first time I tried to read it at the murder scene and was unable to go back to it for 5 years, it was so confronting.
Since then I have made it further, but I still haven't made it past half way due to the intensity.

As for Neal Stephenson, I savour every word, and am making myself wait before I reread the baroque cycle.

Right now I am 47 pages into Proust, and it has taken 3 weeks. At this rate I will die before I finish, it is dense stuff.
posted by bystander at 5:50 PM on August 1, 2007


UbuRolvas: One of the best quotes I ever discovered regarding Waiting For Godot (which Googling now tells me was by Vivian Mercier) was the summary "Nothing happens, twice".
posted by djgh at 6:29 PM on August 1, 2007


I liked Riddley Walker.

Check out Riddley Walker Annotations.
posted by D.C. at 6:32 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I got a couple of A's sophomore lit classes in junior college without reading a single assignment.

But I did attend lectures, which was enough. I just regurgitated them in essay form and got an A.

Oddly enough, I feel like I got a lot out of it, despite not doing anything more than skimming over the assignments during class. It was my introduction to Nietzche (particularly the concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian, which is something that's stuck with me) and also the first time I'd been introduced to the concept of reading individual books of the Bible as literature instead of theology (I was a product of Catholic school).

I also got a C in a pre-Calc class that I showed up to twice because the professor was, I think, senile and lost the grade book or something. Maybe I just went to a retardedly easy college.
posted by empath at 6:57 PM on August 1, 2007


(... A's in sophomore lit classes...)
posted by empath at 6:58 PM on August 1, 2007


This is a depressing thread. Does anyone manage to read a book cover to cover?

I feel sorry for folks who have to maintain an image of being well read, versus the sense of wonderment of knowing there is so much waiting, so much that lies ahead yet to be experienced, and re-experienced. I suspect people who lie about it don't have the sense of wonderment and secretly hate reading and people who read. Reminds me of the The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he discovers his life was a sham on his deathbed.

LibraryThing shows over 2 million unique works among the personal collections of about 250k users. Of those two million books, most of us read maybe 10k or less in a lifetime - we scratch the surface of possibilities in a lifetime of reading. Why lie about it. It's like someone who lives in a trailer park and drives a car that costs more than the trailer.
posted by stbalbach at 7:35 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Text inspires a certain kind of fundamentalism in readers because, like Ideas, they appear to be unchanging. But I very much doubt anybody except the occasional scholar has read any of Dumas' work in its "true" form

Why? I'm not interested in Dumas, but any writer I'm a fan of, I have actually read.

It's not at all clear that reading a work will produce any deep understanding of a text and, similarly, it's not clear that an understanding of the text is only possible through reading it.

what does this even mean? You can claim that reading other people's thoughts about a work can clarify concepts or inspire ideas in you, but to suggest that you have a better comprehension of the book itself without reading the book is nonsense. You have a better sense of someone else's interpretation of the book. It's perfectly acceptable to enjoy other people's interpretations of masterpieces rather than enjoying the works themselves, but why pretend to have familiarity with the text itself? What is the point of claiming to think Ulysses was deep & important or Faulkner was a beautiful writer or Moby Dick was a great novel based only on second-hand information?

Just say you liked the cliff notes if that's what you liked. I simply don't understand the point of misrepresenting your experience by implying that you have actually read the book.
posted by mdn at 8:59 PM on August 1, 2007


I remember this being a necessary skill in my first real job as a bookshop junior, aged 17. Reading about books instead of reading them was the fastest way to give halfway useful service.
posted by Pigpen at 12:12 AM on August 2, 2007


I hereby pronounce Harry Potter shit
posted by henners at 1:31 AM on August 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Earlier this year, for world book day, the beeb had a conversation between John Sutherland, a professor of English literature, and Ross Leckie, an author.

The transcript just has the participants as 'A', and 'B', and asks you to guess which one is Leckie, who hadn't read War and Peace. Mildly entertaining.
posted by Jakob at 7:46 AM on August 2, 2007


I actually read Foucault's Pendulum (it was recommended to me, and sounded interesting), but I probably couldn't contribute to a discussion about it, since I don't really remember what it was about, other than Templars and conspiracies. I remember enjoying it, but not what actually happened.

I don't know what that's about.

Sometimes I get that temptation to read a book just to have read it and have that bit of culture, but then I remember I hardly have time for the books I want to read, for themselves, and I just don't bother. Life's too short.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:46 PM on August 2, 2007


from link, quoting Bayard: "We live in a society . . . in which reading still remains the object of a form of sacralization."

What I was reminded of, and learned more about, from this interesting review of a book I might never read: France is a very, very different country. And it makes sense that someone who is a Frenchman, who is thereby capable of great contrarianism, finally mustered enough gaul to oppose the national dudgeon about the classics.

We Americans don't have such problems. Classics? We don't give a fuck. That's just how we roll here.
posted by koeselitz at 10:46 PM on August 2, 2007


And lucky us in the UK are going to get - I swear - Compact Classics from Weidenfeld publishers. For example, Moby Dick with all the boring stuff that isn't an adventure yarn taken out. It isn't boring or unecessary, it's the astonishing range of imagination that told me, for example, how freely a novel could range and scoop up so much of the way of the world.
posted by jennydiski at 4:21 AM on August 3, 2007


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