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Moby Dick? Middlemarch? Jane Eyre?
July 28, 2008 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Humiliation: Which book are you most embarrassed to admit that you have never read? Several "respectable" authors answer the question at the Ways With Words festival. (single-link Telegraph post)
posted by fiercecupcake (260 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Probably my worst crime as an English major is that I've never read any Dickens. But in my defense, I don't give a shit.
posted by Caduceus at 10:32 AM on July 28, 2008 [14 favorites]


I've read Finnegans Wake ten times ... by which I mean that I've read the first half of Finnegans Wake twenty times.
posted by Knappster at 10:33 AM on July 28, 2008 [18 favorites]


I'm embarrassed that I was cajoled into reading Atlas Shrugged. That count?
posted by puddles at 10:33 AM on July 28, 2008 [9 favorites]


I can't actually read.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:34 AM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


Never read the Bible because some dickwad on an internet forum spoiled the end to me.
posted by darkripper at 10:35 AM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I've never read the phonebook. There's just too many character to keep track of.
posted by DU at 10:36 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


And so little character development!
posted by echo target at 10:38 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Left me feeling disconnected.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:38 AM on July 28, 2008 [8 favorites]


Its too bad that most of the authors interviewed in the little video are rather obscure,

Here's a really good interview with Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

The parlor game of listing books you haven't read, by the way, is called Humiliation, invented by David Lodge (who has never read War and Peace)
posted by blahblahblah at 10:39 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


The English major who posted this has never read Jane Eyre (but has bluffed her way through it in school numerous times). She has also never finished a Jane Austen book. There, I'm embarrassed now.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:41 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I skimmed "Paradise Lost.' Five times. All for classes in high school or college. I'm sort of embarrassed to have never really read it, but not embarrassed enough to try again.
posted by millipede at 10:43 AM on July 28, 2008


War and Peace.
posted by ducktape at 10:43 AM on July 28, 2008


I'm most ashamed and embarrassed that I've never heard of the "respectable" authors they interviewed.
posted by tula at 10:43 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Madame Bovary.
posted by The Straightener at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

I'll start: L. Ron Hubbard's decalogy, "Mission Earth".

A minor point of redemption, though: I only made it through the first three of the ten books before deciding that L. Ron Hubbard not just sucked, but totally sucked.
posted by Flunkie at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


I never read "Moby-Dick," which as an English major kind of embarrasses me. I tried, but I just couldn't get through the first chapter.
posted by sutel at 10:46 AM on July 28, 2008


tl;dr
posted by blue_beetle at 10:46 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never read Starship Troopers, and it seems to come up alot.
posted by smackwich at 10:46 AM on July 28, 2008


In all seriousness, I just finished my first actual (as opposed to excerpted or abridged) Twain novel: Tom Sawyer. It was...OK.

I usually find that "classic" books are a little over-hyped. By contrast, oddly, "classic" movies are often better than I expected (and this is coming from someone who prefers books to movies). Even knowing they were supposed to be Great Movies, Maltese Falcon, Seven Samurai and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly all blew me away.
posted by DU at 10:48 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never read any Dickens, but I'm not particularly ashamed of it. In fact, I've read hardly any 19th-century British writing at all. I find it to be insufferably longwinded. Same problem with Russian literature. People go on and on about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but I can't stand that stuff. I spent 4 months FORCING myself to read the first half of War and Peace, and it was the most odious drudgery of all time, as far as books go. No shame though, whatsoever. I guess I'm just too American, and I really only do well with modern idiom. I've read some James Joyce and enjoyed it, but only a collection of short stories called "The Dubliners." Have yet to tackle Ulysses, though maybe someday I will. As to the thread title -- I'm reading Moby Dick for the second time in as many years, and absolutely cherish that book. Kind of an outlier.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2008


I've never read the phonebook. There's just too many character to keep track of.

Heh. At the used booktore I work at, people will sometimes slip a phonebook in among the others. I always say 'just because it's full of interesting characters, dosen't make it a book, dude.'

And I'm not embarassed about not reading any book. I don't go about reading like I'm taking a course and it's some kind of duty. I just look at shelves and wait for something that looks interesting, or in a few rare instances something new by an author I like.
posted by jonmc at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2008


I can't think of any books, but I am somewhat ashamed to not have more James Brown in my record collection.
posted by echo target at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Tripe. Can I have that week back?
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:50 AM on July 28, 2008


Errr...I read all 10 of the Mission Earth books. And Battlefield Earth. Twice. And I didn't hate the movie. (NOT SCIENTOLOGIST)
posted by DU at 10:50 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


My best grade on a high school English paper was on The Invisible Man. I only read 2 chapters. I was pretty depressed about that situation.
posted by rmless at 10:51 AM on July 28, 2008


I read Madam Bovary. I think the only book I enjoyed less and got less out of in my undergraduate career was Heart of Darkness.
posted by Caduceus at 10:52 AM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?
jonathon livingston seagull
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 10:52 AM on July 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


One summer in high school I read all 10 volumes of L. Ron Hubbard's "Mission Earth" series. It's over 10,000 pages long. I didn't know anything about Hubbard, and I grabbed the first book because it was one of the few hardback sci-fi books at my local library. It wasn't very good, but at the time I refused to stop reading something once I'd started.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes the series as "one of the great embarrassments of modern science fiction."

I wonder how many people (that aren't Scientologists) can claim they read the whole thing. It's got to be a small group. I should start a club.

On preview: Wow. Flunkie beat me to it. You can be in the club even though you only read 3 books. You can't be in the inner circle though.
posted by diogenes at 10:53 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness, I just finished my first actual (as opposed to excerpted or abridged) Twain novel: Tom Sawyer. It was...OK.

I usually find that "classic" books are a little over-hyped.
Well, as Twain himself said, a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read, and no one wants to read.

That aside, maybe try his collected short stories. Or, my personal favorite novel of his (although I've only read maybe four or five) is "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court".
posted by Flunkie at 10:53 AM on July 28, 2008


On second preview:

DU can be in the inner circle! Maybe there are more of us out there than I thought.
posted by diogenes at 10:54 AM on July 28, 2008


DU and diogenes, I am impressed by your apparent fortitude. You guys must have stomachs made of cast iron. Kudos!
posted by Flunkie at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2008


I majored in English and have never gotten more than a third of the way through Wuthering Heights, because it sucks so hard. I don't feel bad about not reading it. I do feel a little bit sorry for Emily Bronte and her shitty-ass writing, though.
posted by padraigin at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Way too goddamn many books with dragons on the cover.
posted by Justinian at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2008 [24 favorites]


Not to have read: any Austen, as I am female and it is apparently a requirement.

Read: I hated Dracula. I hated all the characters, and by halfway through the book I wanted him to just eat them already and put me out of my misery.

Also, I've read way too many Regency-era romances. (I claim points for irony in light of the aforementioned lack of Austen.)
posted by elfgirl at 10:57 AM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm embarrassed to have read The Da Vinci Code, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. My reasoning went "the last time people were talking this much about a book was Harry Potter, and that turned out to be quite enjoyable and fun".

Was I ever wrong.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:58 AM on July 28, 2008 [11 favorites]


DU Wow. Taste varies, I suppose. I tried reading both the Mission Earth series and Battlefield Earth and the suck kept me from getting more than a hundred pages or so into either.

As for books that I'm embarrassed to have read, I'll confess that I once read "A Tarnsman of Gor". Back when I was young and dumb I saw the series and assumed that it *MUST* be worthwhile because they kept publishing sequels. And then I learned that no, a large number of sequels isn't, in fact, a measure of how good a series is.

I'll admit that, despite acting with a Shakespearean company, I've never actually read any Shakespeare that I wasn't acting in. So I've only read nine plays by Shakespeare. I know I should read the rest but I just keep not doing it.

As far as Twain goes, Tom Sawyer was a bit lame, but to its credit it was intended as a kiddie book. Still, I do think that his novels are a bit weak, his best stuff is his shorter stuff.
posted by sotonohito at 11:01 AM on July 28, 2008


Miss Tanner, about that B you gave me on the test in 11th grade? Yeah, I never actually read Heart of Darkness.

Sorry about that.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:02 AM on July 28, 2008


Actually, I'm not 100% sure I read all 10. By the time the main character (I hesitate to call him a "hero") gets to Earth, it goes downhill and gets fuzzy. Which is a very short trip for this series, but in the first couple of books it's at least a fresh bowl of tripe.

I didn't know anything about scientology at the time either, but I picked up fairly quickly that they hate psychologists.

In my defense, I read it for the same reason diogenes did: Those 10 books comprised probably 15% of the SF content in my small town library.

Was I ever wrong.

Oh man, no kidding. That's exactly why I read Da Vinci Code and boy, was it ever suck. And then they made a movie from it! It's already a movie, on dead trees (minus any sense of suspense or mystery).
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on July 28, 2008


I'm embarrassed that I was cajoled into reading Atlas Shrugged. That count?

Oh, well done, MetaFilter! We had to wait only five minutes for the gratuitous Ayn Rand swipe to show up!
posted by mw at 11:04 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I got an A on a paper about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, crash davis. Even though I couldn't read more than a third of it.

Let's hear it for grade momentum! Sometimes I suspect the teachers only read your first couple papers. After that they just give you roughly the same grades forever.
posted by Justinian at 11:05 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


As an English Major, I'd say way more than I would be ready to admit. Especially since many of the titles are on my nightstand, where I tell myself "I'll get to it tomorrow."
posted by Weebot at 11:06 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


My best grade on a high school English paper was on The Invisible Man. I only read 2 chapters.

We were assigned--don't get me started--The Joy Luck Club in 9th grade. I got maybe ten pages in, realized that 9th-grade-me couldn't keep track of all the Chinesey names, and gave up. Still managed to do really well on the exam.

I'm embarrassed to have read The Da Vinci Code, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

I'm a little embarrassed to have read it, but I'm more embarrassed to have read it at maximum possible speed, filling every moment of my time. It's garbage, but it's page-turning garbage. It really made me furious, that book.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:06 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've had The Brothers Karamazov sitting accusatorily on my to-be-read-next shelf for a very, very long time.

But I did read all of War and Peace, and genuinely enjoyed everything except some of the longer discursive passages on 19th C. Russian history (which admittedly is a significant swath of the book). All I really remember now, though, is a lot of parlour intrigue that all blurs together into coquettish aristocratic girls and confused Russian boys plus that part where the one prince gets so turned backward in battle he can't remember which way he's charging and just starts firing willynilly and winds up being treated like a war hero.

Oh, and I write about environmental issues but have never read more than the opening chunk of Silent Spring.

On preview: Word to that, padraigin. I hated Wuthering Heights so much that it almost made me forget I hated Tess of the D'Urbervilles even more, and my resentment at the precious slice of my youth lost to both of them is so intense that I hate Ian McEwen for the fact that the first thirty pages of Atonement reminded me so much of the goddamn cow-milking scene in Tess that goes on for an excruciating why-not-just-peel-back-my-fingernails-with-a-rusty-spatula-instead eternity that now when I make the mistake of starting to believe I might like a novel based on a favourable review in the mainstream book press I remember that these jackasses think Ian McEwen is a genius and not the literary equivalent of a maker of like exquisite reproductions of Mission furniture. And then I remind myself I should pick up the new Alan Furst "genre" novel next chance I get.
posted by gompa at 11:07 AM on July 28, 2008


I've been doing little write ups about books in my collection. A friend of mine chatted with me about that, saying "Your book collection makes me realize how few books I have."

I said, "Well, you know I haven't read most of them."

She didn't believe me, but it's true. I buy them for the covers, but most of my books are pieces of shit that would just be too much work to read. You can tell when I haven't read the book -- I just reproduce text from the back cover or a passage I selected at random from inside the book.

I suspect most book collectors have read only a small percentage of the books they own, which gets some readers in a huff. But, you know, Philatelists don't mail off the stamps they collect. The pleasure in collecting comes from having, not from using.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:09 AM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Winter's Tale. Helprin's prose isn't merely purple; it's positively ultraviolet.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:09 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Eugene Onegin. Also, Fathers and Sons.

This is a lot more of a serious problem if you're Russian.

Also, I claim to be an expert on the eighteenth century, but I've never read Fielding, Richardson, Rousseau's Emile, Confessions, or Nouvelle Heloise, Pope, Gray's Elegy...the list goes on. And then there are the real classics, starting with the Aeneid...I'm rather culturally deprived, I guess.

That was pretty cathartic, actually.
posted by nasreddin at 11:09 AM on July 28, 2008


We had to wait only five minutes for the gratuitous Ayn Rand swipe to show up!

There is no such thing as a gratutitous Ayn Rand swipe.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:10 AM on July 28, 2008 [39 favorites]


I've never read anything written by a Bronte. (I did see the Franco Zeffirelli film version of Jane Eyre, though.)

Also, when I was a kid I read seven of the ten Mission Earth books, as well as Battlefield Earth. Even then, I kept wondering why Bridge Publications seemed to only publish books by L. Ron Hubbard and no one else.

Trivia: Battlefield Earth--the book--also had a soundtrack album, with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke as personnel.

posted by Prospero at 11:12 AM on July 28, 2008


I should add that there are a lot of classics I've never read, but really, I agree with jonmc here: who cares?
posted by uncleozzy at 11:13 AM on July 28, 2008


Huck Finn is tons better than Tom Sawyer. If that helps.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:14 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Way too goddamn many books with dragons on the cover.


Hey! Anne McCaffrey is a serious SF writer!
posted by Artw at 11:15 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't even know where to start with this, so I'll go with this:

Probably my worst crime as an English major is that I've never read any Dickens. But in my defense, I don't give a shit.
posted by Caduceus


As far as talking about books you haven't read: When I was an English major, I learned if the teacher asks "how many?" the answer is almost always "three." If the professor asks why, the answer is "the fall of Man."
posted by marxchivist at 11:16 AM on July 28, 2008 [10 favorites]


I never read anything by Louis Paul Boon or by Hugo Claus. I'm embarassed to admit that to Flemish people.

I couldn't will myself to read Don Quixote. Nor the Divina Commedia.
posted by jouke at 11:16 AM on July 28, 2008


Winter's Tale. Helprin's prose isn't merely purple; it's positively ultraviolet.

I just picked up two Helprin books for a buck apiece from some street vendor's table and read Winter's Tale first, largely based on all the glowing reviews I've heard over the years. Now Memoir from Antproof Case is sitting on my to-be-read pile mocking me.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:17 AM on July 28, 2008


My Ethics and Philosophy teacher from a few years back gave me a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist on the condition that I read it, and then pass it on to someone else whose life it might change.

I got about a chapter of a ways in before abandoning it, I just didn't like that teacher very much.
posted by emperor.seamus at 11:18 AM on July 28, 2008


I wonder how many people (that aren't Scientologists) can claim they read the whole thing.

i did - it was something to do - i don't think it was that bad, but i do seem to be unable to recall it, so i won't say it was good

i've attempted to read pilgrim's progress several times and been unable to finish - but i'm not embarrassed about it
posted by pyramid termite at 11:18 AM on July 28, 2008


I have also failed in reading the Russian greats. As I also dislike some of the greats of Russian cinema (I'm looking at you, Tarkovsky), I think there may just be a disconnect between me and the Ruskies.

As far as embarrassed to have read, I've read Marilyn Manson's autobiography. I enjoyed it, too.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:19 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, I've read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and I genuinely enjoyed them both. Perhaps this is because, as a computer programmer, I wasn't in any way obligated to study either of them. I actually found Tolstoy to be a pretty easy read. The hardest part was keeping track of all the secondary characters, which usually necessitated a lot of flipping back to previous chapters. If I were to change anything about War and Peace, I'd definitely give it an index.

Don Quixote, on the other hand, was the most difficult book I've ever read. God, what a trudge. So many uninteresting stories-within-stories. So much silly Three Stooges humor. So many jokes that just didn't make it over the language barrier. Still, it was worth it, if for no other reason than to have read one of the first novels EVER. Plus, now I get all the cultural references to it, which is kinda nice.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:21 AM on July 28, 2008


Not to have read: any Austen, as I am female and it is apparently a requirement.

One of the many benefits of external genitalia is having no obligation whatsoever to even glance in the general direction of books by Jane Austen, the Brontës, or Lucy Maude Montgomery.

I've tried on several occasions to get into Brideshead Revisited, but I find it entirely impossible; however, I've quite enjoyed the work of the A. Waughs, so go figure.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:22 AM on July 28, 2008


(I'm looking at you, Tarkovsky)

Seconded.

posted by Sys Rq at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Huck Finn is tons better than Tom Sawyer. If that helps.

I'd say the difference isn't one of quality, but of audience. As someone who read Tom Sawyer perhaps a dozen times in elementary school, I'd say Tom Sawyer is a wonderful kid's book, but it is a kid's book. Hick Finn is a novel.

I plan to someday translate Huck Finn into English.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:25 AM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


Like everyone else, I was assigned any number of books in my school career that I didn't read in their entireties. Some of them I'm embarrassed about, and others I'm not--I feel no shame for giving up on Catcher in the Rye.

Being a pirate, though, I think I'm most embarrassed about never having read Treasure Island.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:26 AM on July 28, 2008


I've read a whole buttload of classics. Middlesexmarch, War and Peaches, Anna Karen-Do.

What's embarrassing is not remembering, AT ALL, which bitches belong under what alphabet-heading in which city and when. All for naught, it seems.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 11:28 AM on July 28, 2008


She has also never finished a Jane Austen book.

SPOILER THE CHICK GETS MARRIED


I started Swann's Way, but the first fifty pages were about as far I got into In Search Of Lost Time. I think I'm most embarrassed about that given how much I liked it at the time. I keep meaning to read it these days, but I look at the length of it, and I think, "Christ, if I want to devote that much of my time to something that detail-oriented, maybe I should just have some kids already."
posted by Greg Nog at 11:29 AM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I've passed on my share, most notably I've never read The Red Badge of Courage or that other one , but I was just thinking wouldn't it be cool if there were some sort of NetFlix for books? I mean I am watching a lot more "classic" movies simply because I can check them on a list and the mailman pushes them through the mail slot. If books were more push than pull I'd probably read more.
posted by Gungho at 11:29 AM on July 28, 2008


I feel no shame for giving up on Catcher in the Rye.

In my experience, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Catcher in the Rye. You love it or you loathe it. (I am in the latter category.)
posted by elfgirl at 11:32 AM on July 28, 2008


Actually, elfgirl, I hear that a lot, but I felt pretty meh about Catcher in the Rye. I finished it, and I was like, "That's it, then? Okay."
posted by Greg Nog at 11:34 AM on July 28, 2008


Applemeat, English major, sums up 19th century literature for you:

A guy's upset because his sister's not a virgin anymore; somebody gets run over by a buggy; everybody is coughing, and nobody has any money.
posted by applemeat at 11:34 AM on July 28, 2008 [80 favorites]


Is it ironic that an article (?) about not having read books depicts its main content in the form of a video absent a transcript?
posted by Eideteker at 11:37 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hum. You know, no one is required to like Austen, the Brontes, Hardy, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville etc. etc. etc. but chances are if you read a work that has been hailed as a masterpiece for over a century, has been a crucially formative work for other great artists, and is loved and enjoyed by serious lovers of literature all over the world and you find it excruciatingly boring, that that says more about you than it does about the work you're failing to appreciate.
posted by yoink at 11:37 AM on July 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


Gnngh. This is one of those 'games' where the stated goal and actual goal are two different things. The stated goal is to entertain the group by 'confessing' to never having read a work that's part of the establishment canon. The actual goal is to look as mortified and penitent as possible whilst admitting to having not read all the way to the end of some massively obscure tome in the original Urdu, thus implying that you have read and appreciated every other book on the planet.

The idea that someone should genuinely feel shame and embarrassment for not having read Crime and Punishment or To Kill A Mockingbird is ugly and elitist. It's implicitly dismissing huge tranches of the population as imbeciles. Not that huge tranches of the population aren't imbeciles, it's just that, well, if you're making a list you should probably start with Telegraph readers.
posted by RokkitNite at 11:39 AM on July 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


The whole premise is stupid. Keeping score on what "classic" books you read or didn't read. When did reading become a sporting event?
posted by ljrsphb at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


if you read a work that has been hailed as a masterpiece for over a century, has been a crucially formative work for other great artists, and is loved and enjoyed by serious lovers of literature all over the world and you find it excruciatingly boring, that that says more about you than it does about the work you're failing to appreciate.

Yes and no, yoink.

Assuming literature is anything like other forms of art (from painting to stand-up), phrases like highly influential can often be taken to mean improved upon by many.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:44 AM on July 28, 2008 [4 favorites]



Hum. You know, no one is required to like Austen, the Brontes, Hardy, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville etc. etc. etc. but chances are if you read a work that has been hailed as a masterpiece for over a century, has been a crucially formative work for other great artists, and is loved and enjoyed by serious lovers of literature all over the world and you find it excruciatingly boring, that that says more about you than it does about the work you're failing to appreciate.


Yes, because guilting people into reading books has always served to foster literary appreciation.

If you don't feel it, you don't feel it. It doesn't mean you have poor judgment; it means judgment is inherently subjective.

The idea that someone should genuinely feel shame and embarrassment for not having read Crime and Punishment or To Kill A Mockingbird is ugly and elitist. It's implicitly dismissing huge tranches of the population as imbeciles. Not that huge tranches of the population aren't imbeciles, it's just that, well, if you're making a list you should probably start with Telegraph readers.

I agree with this. But I nonetheless feel guilty for not having read much of the canon, because I've selected intellectualism and learning to be one of the standards by which I measure my life. If you're a carpenter, and you want to be a great carpenter, you're going to feel bad if you can't build a simple table; it doesn't mean your neighbor the welder should feel bad.
posted by nasreddin at 11:46 AM on July 28, 2008 [7 favorites]


I just picked up two Helprin books for a buck apiece from some street vendor's table and read Winter's Tale first, largely based on all the glowing reviews I've heard over the years.

Winter's Tale is a book that I felt truly betrayed by. The first three chapters were excellent. I was totally willing to tolerate his overly-ornate writing style, his idealization of damn near everything, and his thinly-veiled social elitism. However, the last chapter, by which I mean "Book Four : The Golden Age," was just so awful and ambiguous that it made me question why I liked the first three chapters to begin with.

Also, Helprin is an idiot.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:47 AM on July 28, 2008



Assuming literature is anything like other forms of art (from painting to stand-up), phrases like highly influential can often be taken to mean improved upon by many.

Careful. The idea of progress is problematic in general, but it's utterly meaningless when applied to art. People who think art is progressive, like technology, are often brutes who end up producing awful, nauseating art. It's not a coincidence.
posted by nasreddin at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I gave up on Pride and Prejudice, because I couldn't keep the characters straight. I guess I let my fellow-women down on that one.
I actually enjoyed The Heart of Darkness. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in that class who did.
In about seventh grade I read a lot of the Star Trek: the Next Generation novels, which is pretty embarassing.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2008


I agree, yoink: it's not the book it's the person. Sometimes you just can't relate to the characters or theme. Sometimes you need to have a certain amount of experience. I couldn't read Dickens (though I tried) until my 30s. Found him long-winded and stuffy. Then when I tried again in my mid-30s, with Pickwick Papers, I discovered to my amazement he was hilarious -- almost Monty Pythonish. I consumed most of his huge major novels over the next ten years and loved them all. Have even begun re-reading some and find he's a genius with his control of words and images and plot -- not to mention a great social critic and satirist. I also enjoy Trollope and like telling people I'm going to bed with my Trollope.
posted by binturong at 11:51 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ulysses.
posted by Perplexity at 11:51 AM on July 28, 2008


I have never actually read any of Romeo and Juliet. Nary a word. In fact, I faked my way through most of my Shakespeare class in high school AND college. Proud English Major here.
posted by banannafish at 11:52 AM on July 28, 2008


On the subject of the actual Telegraph link: I watched the video without my headphones on and was quite amused by the way the mouths of these so-called 'respectable authors' tend to move in the most unexpected ways. Try it, it's fun.
posted by greatgefilte at 11:54 AM on July 28, 2008


Sometimes a Great Notion. I have a copy. I've had it for years. I plan on reading it one of these days.

How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

That would be Prozac Nation. And then Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women and then More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction.


posted by Sailormom at 11:55 AM on July 28, 2008


Well, there are many "classics" I haven't read yet, just from sheer volume. Hell, we're talking about four *centuries* worth of novels. What's considered the "must-read" level there? So I hold no embarrassment for books I haven't gotten around to reading, because I'm still *actively* reading them. War and Peace? Done. Don Quixote? Done (and one of my favourites). Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Morte d'Arthur, all done. A couple of Dickens? Yep (utter drudgery). Austen, the various Brontes, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Crime and Punishment, Three Musketeers (and its 2-4 sequels), Moby Dick... all checks. Old Testament, New Testament, the Koran... Iliad, Odyssey, Canterbury Tales... just did Treasure Island last week, oddly enough. Throw in virtually every Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John Irving, C.S. Forester, and Tom Clancy for good measure, too.

Thus Spake Zarathrustra, though... man, I've been plodding through that at a rate of a page a lifetime, it seems.

As for Shakespeare, although I've read quite a few... they're plays, damn it, and meant to be seen, not read.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:55 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Careful. The idea of progress is problematic in general, but it's utterly meaningless when applied to art. People who think art is progressive, like technology, are often brutes who end up producing awful, nauseating art. It's not a coincidence.

Oh, don't get me wrong, there's also the derivative retread side of "influence," and of course nothing is worse than a plagiarist who doesn't understand the work he copies. But in terms of yoink's comment, i.e. the influence on artists one enjoys and respects, it is often (though certainly not always) the case that so-called Classics are merely half-formed seedlings.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2008


The idea that someone should genuinely feel shame and embarrassment for not having read Crime and Punishment or To Kill A Mockingbird is ugly and elitist.

Definitely, but the video deals specifically with writers, not the general public. It's probably in a writer's best interest to be acquainted with the "classics" so they can better understand their field. I'd be interested in seeing something similar only with film reviewers/critics - maybe some of them would admit to having never seen Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal...
posted by wundermint at 11:57 AM on July 28, 2008


Still, it was worth it, if for no other reason than to have read one of the first novels EVER.

I read what is generally considered THE first novel EVER: The Tale of Genji.

It was surprisingly not bad. At least, for a 1000 year old book about Japanese court life.

Also: The idea that someone should genuinely feel shame and embarrassment for not having read Crime and Punishment or To Kill A Mockingbird is ugly and elitist. It's implicitly dismissing huge tranches of the population as imbeciles. Not that huge tranches of the population aren't imbeciles, it's just that, well, if you're making a list you should probably start with Telegraph readers.

Wait, what? You're castigating something as being ugly and elitist, and then going on to call huge tranches of the population imbeciles? Anyone who tries to use the term "elitist" to score points in an argument is an asshole in the first place, and then you're going and making a hypocrite of yourself, too. I'd like to genuinely and warmly invite you to fuck off.
posted by Caduceus at 11:59 AM on July 28, 2008


wundermint: Here's one.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2008


Have read: Spok's World

Haven't read: Ulysses

No plans to. No regrets.

The rest of you though are just willfully ignorant philistines. I shan't associate with the likes of you anymore.

*looks down monocle*
posted by ND¢ at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh my god I misspelled Spock's name! I am in for an epic nerd-rage beat down!
posted by ND¢ at 12:01 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Star Trek novels. heh.

I'm not embarrassed about not having read all the "important" books yet. I've read many of them, and will read as many more as I can over my lifetime.
posted by zarah at 12:02 PM on July 28, 2008


I'd be interested in seeing something similar only with film reviewers/critics - maybe some of them would admit to having never seen Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal...

I worked as a film critic for several years before watching Citizen Kane. My excuse at the time was that I was holding out to watch it on the big screen. Finally, I just Netflixed it. (It's great, by the way).
posted by Bookhouse at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2008


As previously noted, I never finished Don Quixote. I have tried (and failed) to read If On A Winter's Night A Traveler at least six separate times. The Satanic Verses lost me in the fourth chapter. Tristram Shandy delighted me for an afternoon; now it gathers dust on my bookshelf. I bought an expensive annotated version of Ulysses, spent fifteen minutes flipping through it trying to find the sexy parts, and then gave up. I threw over Invisible Man about 300 pages in. Despite the fact that I'm constantly quoting To The Lighthouse, I've never read the second half. I made a mighty four-volume push through Proust, then dropped it. I really only read up to Circle 7 of the Inferno, and as for the rest of the Divine Comedy -- ha! The Metamorphoses ground to a halt after Philomela, The Illiad stopped after two books, and I have completely failed to get a foothold in either the prose or verse Eddas. There is no major philosopher, classical or otherwise, whose work I haven't begun in a fit of optimism and set aside after a few pages. And I don't even want to talk about literary criticism, which I have neglected most shamefully.

My only comfort is the aforementioned quote from the Life of Johnson. Which, in point of fact, I never finished either.

I'm still feeling burdened by this. I might need a priest.
posted by ourobouros at 12:03 PM on July 28, 2008


I've never read the "Unbearable Lightness of Being" nor "Love in the Time of Cholera."

My opinion of myself is a bit diminished every time I think of this.
posted by oddman at 12:05 PM on July 28, 2008


I can't really speak to most of the novels in this thread, because (appropriately enough) I haven't read most of them, but as someone whose first experience reading Don Quixote was with a group, in Spanish, in a class taught by a Spaniard who had devoted a good deal of her life to studying and teaching the novel, I have to say that's the way to read it.

Of all those factors, though, I think it was actually reading it in a group that was the integral thing, and that's how I would recommend people read it, whether they take a class or read it in translation with a book club or whatever. It's a book that's meant to be discussed and shared, in the same way that the characters in the novel itself sit around in inns and listen to the stories. I don't think I would have gotten nearly as much out of it if I had read it on my own. A lot of the readability is affected by the translator, too. I referred to Edith Grossman's relatively new English translation while I was reading the original Spanish version, and I found it to be really accessible, in as modern an idiom as was possible without changing the tone too much.

I'd be interested in seeing something similar only with film reviewers/critics - maybe some of them would admit to having never seen Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal.

That'd be interesting, but I think the results would be a lot less dramatic than this, simply because film, relative to literature, is still a new art form and thus the "canon" of significant works is a lot smaller. Not to mention watching a film takes considerably less time than reading most books, especially the kinds of books that tend to be canonized. (Though I suppose you could argue that watching a film with an eye towards dissecting and understanding it can be as intense as studying a book closely.)
posted by Kosh at 12:09 PM on July 28, 2008


Book I'm embarrassed to have read:

I was gonna say Kate Chopin's the awakening. But then I remembered that I bluffed my through that one.

I did actually read Henry James's Turn of the Screw. And my god was that ever unbearable. I've never read such needlessly ambiguous bullshit ever in my life. If that was wha passed for scary in James's time then people in James's time were complete pussies. UGH

Book I'm embarrassed to not have read:

I gotta go with anything by Bukowski. I've started a couple of his books a couple of times, whilst killing time in borders, loved them, sat them back on the shelf and left. I always told myself I'd go back and buy post office and read it all the way through. Just haven't gotten to it yet.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 12:10 PM on July 28, 2008


Embarrassed to have not read: Gravity's Rainbow. I've been stuck around page 300 or so for about three years.

Embarrassed to have read: all the Dune sequels. (All the actual Frank Herbert ones, that is, not the new fake crap.)

I agree with Greg Nog: I didn't love or loathe Catcher in the Rye; it doesn't seem all that polarizing to me. I really liked The Bell Jar, though. I think they should teach that in high school instead of Catcher.
posted by equalpants at 12:12 PM on July 28, 2008


As a follow up: my argument in support of my claim that using the term elitist as a pejorative is that it implicitly supports the worldview that people don't need to improve themselves. There's a real sickness in American culture, in that there's this perception that we're all already perfect gems, when we're obviously not. There's nothing wrong with learning new things and trying to become better persons, whether that comes in the form of learning carpentry or plumbing, teaching ourselves how to sew, or reaching a piece of great literature. "Elitist" is a term used by people who see others, suspect those others are better than them, and then hate them for it, or by people who consciously or unconsciously believe that others are stupid and should stay stupid so that they're easy to control. And I'm not down with that.
posted by Caduceus at 12:12 PM on July 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


Oh, man, ourobouros, the second half of To The Lighthouse is the best part! I hated that book until it just sort of clicked for me during the last thirty pages or so, and then I suddenly loved it.
posted by Caduceus at 12:14 PM on July 28, 2008


Well, there are many "classics" I haven't read yet, just from sheer volume. Hell, we're talking about four *centuries* worth of novels. What's considered the "must-read" level there? So I hold no embarrassment for books I haven't gotten around to reading, because I'm still *actively* reading them. War and Peace? Done. Don Quixote? Done (and one of my favourites). Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Morte d'Arthur, all done. A couple of Dickens? Yep (utter drudgery). Austen, the various Brontes, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Crime and Punishment, Three Musketeers (and its 2-4 sequels), Moby Dick... all checks. Old Testament, New Testament, the Koran... Iliad, Odyssey, Canterbury Tales... just did Treasure Island last week, oddly enough. Throw in virtually every Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John Irving, C.S. Forester, and Tom Clancy for good measure, too.

...so you just used this thread to flaunt the books you have read? Talk about missing the point of the exercise.
posted by nasreddin at 12:14 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, here's the thing. I'm not at all embarrassed by any of the books that I haven't read. I have a degree in Writing and I am an erstwhile professional writer and editor. Reading and writing are my life.

I have never read: Catcher in the Rye, Don Quixote, or anything by James Joyce, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, DeLillo, Steinbeck, Bellow, Henry James, Rushdie, Naipaul, Burgess, Wharton, Roth, Conrad or Robertson Davies. I haven't read The Great Gatsby. I haven't been able to finish a single novel by David Foster Wallace. I am a Canadian and have come to the conclusion, after numerous attempts, that most fiction by Canadians published in Canada would never meet the standards of quality to be published anywhere else, so I generally avoid Canadian fiction, too and could go on for pages about the 'leading lights' whose work I have ignored.

I am not ashamed of any of these choices, because they're choices and I don't have unlimited time. I'd sooner read Hesse, Pynchon or Vonnegut than Ondaatje, Atwood or Proulx. And I'd sooner chew off my own arm than read War and Peace.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:16 PM on July 28, 2008


first experience reading Don Quixote was with a group, in Spanish, in a class taught by a Spaniard who had devoted a good deal of her life to studying and teaching the novel

I read The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English, in a class taught by a guy who really, really loved Chaucer, and it was a really great experience. I think a lot of the experience of the "classics" is context. Also the TA was smokin hot.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:17 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


> How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

I'm not exactly embarassed to have read it, but I am genuinely sorry I ever read Ethan Frome. It reduced my lifetime pleasure-in-living quotient by half a dozen points that aren't ever going to get made up.
posted by jfuller at 12:20 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


aaa: I'm a big fantasy nerd and people had been recommending E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros to me as a classic and precursor to tolkein.

totally boring and rambling mess.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 12:22 PM on July 28, 2008


I've read enough classics to feel my place in the white male power structure is secure, so I don't fret over the ones I haven't read. (Moby Dick, I'm talking about you.)

I have read a boatload of lesser works, including Battlefield Earth, which I think is pretty cool. The only thing that truly bothers me is when people say "Oh, I don't read." It's like having sex only once a year. Sure, you can live that way, but why would you?
posted by BeReasonable at 12:24 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I did actually read Henry James's Turn of the Screw. And my god was that ever unbearable. I've never read such needlessly ambiguous bullshit ever in my life. If that was wha passed for scary in James's time then people in James's time were complete pussies. UGH

I read a few different James stories from different points in his career in an English class once, and one thing that really struck me was how he got less and less readable as he got older. He was already pretty baroque at the beginning, so that's a significant achievement. I found Daisy Miller the most accessible of his works (though even that was a bit of a slog), and The Turn of the Screw the least, simply because it was so damn boring. Beast in the Jungle gets a dishonorable mention, though, both for having stupidly ornate language and for having a main character that I utterly hated (rather than pitied, as I think I was supposed to.)
posted by Kosh at 12:24 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am embarassed to have written that story about the vampire strippers.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


in no particular order:

Huckleberry Finn
A Separate Peace
Moby Dick
Crime and Punishment
War and Peace
Notes from the Underground
Don Quixote (reading it now, though, so nyah)
anything by Nabokov EXCEPT Lolita
Origin of Species
Gulliver's Travels
Great Expectations
Jane Eyre
Oliver Twist
Wuthering Heights
Middlemarch
David Copperfield
A Tale of Two Cities
Emma
Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Les Miserables
L'Etranger
Metamorphosis
Tom Sawyer
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The Once and Future King
more that I can't currently recall

I am most embarassed by these not solely because they're so well known and widely read but also because I have successfully written papers on virtually every single one of them during my time as an English major and/or high school student.

On top of that, I recall while I compile lists like these that I have read:

more than one book by Robert Jordan
The novel adaptation of the movie Adventures in Babysitting
At least 7 different Brady companion books for various role playing video games
the first 12 garfield collections
The entire rulebook for the Warhammer 40k tabletop miniatures game, despite never having played a single session of the game itself
More than one book by Clive Barker
Literally dozens of books by Piers Anthony
Multiple fiction books published by the old TSR, including those set within the fictional universes of The Forgotten Realms AND Dragonlance's Krynn.

I just... there are things you cannot justify having done. Not even to yourself. You just have to shrug and say "I was young and I didn't know better" as though someone had recently discovered that you had posed nude for a trashy porno magazine.
posted by shmegegge at 12:26 PM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


To add some more dry twigs to this bonfire of shame: Carlyles Sartor Resartus, Djuna Barnes - Under Milkwood, Rilkes Gedichte, Karl Kraus' Werke.

Yes, I'll do my measure of penitance and self-flogging.
posted by jouke at 12:27 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I am not ashamed of any of these choices, because they're choices and I don't have unlimited time. I'd sooner read Hesse, Pynchon or Vonnegut than Ondaatje, Atwood or Proulx. And I'd sooner chew off my own arm than read War and Peace.

I agree with you (except the War and Peace bit; it's a neat little book, give it a chance.)

The thing is, reading books is not going down a list and checking them off. How you read a book--how you retain it, incorporate its lessons into your life--is at least as dependent on your context in life as it is on any abstract canonical "quality" it might possess "in itself."

I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra when I was 12, because for some reason I had already gotten the idea that there was some kind of Big Checklist that I would have to read completely before I could think of myself as intelligent. (It didn't help that my stepfather hung a Great Books list on the refrigerator door, with "minimum minimorum for any educated person" scrawled above it in a pedant's hand).

The book, of course, glided over my head like a maple leaf in the gentle September breeze. I remembered absolutely nothing about that first reading, besides some weird hermits and evil dwarves or something. Nine years later, I read it again, and it has become one of the most important books in my life. Did I even really read it that first time? Did I deserve to check that box? Doesn't even asking that question poison your experience of literature?
posted by nasreddin at 12:29 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've never read Lolita, and I'm a bit embarrassed about that. Everyone I know who's read it has sung its praises. I just don't think I'd be able to read it without getting creeped out.

Then again, I did love Gravity's Rainbow, which was, without a doubt, the dirtiest book I've ever read. So maybe Lolita wouldn't creep me out as much I'm afraid that it would.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:31 PM on July 28, 2008


Kosh:
it didn't help that I had to read it for a class where the prof was a total snob who tossed James's salad every night in her sleep.

She thought all that ambiguity was such a great thing because it CHALLENGED us.

People gotta learn that challenging and engaging are two totally different things.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 12:33 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are so many good books out there - I can't be embarrassed by the ones I've missed. If I was it would probably be The Great Gatsby just the way literate persons all speak of it in tones of "naturally you've read it."

The most embarrassing book to have read: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Came across as a rejected Home Improvement script. Although it did teach me an important lesson - the contents matter nothing if you've got a great title.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:35 PM on July 28, 2008


I've tried to read Cortazar's Rayuela ('Hopscotch', in English) an uncounted number of times, but keep losing my place. It's impossible to find your place again once you lose it, as the whole book is out of sequence and the chapters aren't physically in their actual order.
posted by signal at 12:37 PM on July 28, 2008


BTW - am I the only one who finds most of the classic literature truly great? Moby Dick - loved it. Mark Twain - thrilling. Ditto Wuthering Heights, The Maltese Falcon, and others. I'm sure I could come up with a few supposed classics that would have made me wince, but I probably avoided them.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:39 PM on July 28, 2008


I think literature belongs to the age which produced it - thus the endless descriptions of Mother Russia in Russian works is hard to spend time on in an age of Google maps. Even if a Google map does not show the depth of the ubiquitous mud.

As for Jane Austen, I reread P&P occasionally to clean up my vocabulary. I actually used the term computer-fu to a non-nerd group. Slang and neologisms are so tempting.
posted by Cranberry at 12:39 PM on July 28, 2008


I'd like to second (or third) whoever named Atlas Shrugged as the book they were most embarassed to have read, with Kicking Tomorrow and Half Asleep In Frog's Pajamas listed as runners-up. In my defence, all three were given to me by really cute girls when I was in university, and I skipped the radio speech section in Atlas Shrugged.

I'm not really well-read enough to have a small list of The Classics I haven't read, but I have tried and failed to finish Ulysses, Foucault's Pendulum, Moby Dick and Madame Bovary, among others.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:40 PM on July 28, 2008


pssst, dances, we all have some of these we read and liked a lot. That's not the point!
posted by jouke at 12:40 PM on July 28, 2008


I've tried to read Cortazar's Rayuela ('Hopscotch', in English) an uncounted number of times, but keep losing my place. It's impossible to find your place again once you lose it, as the whole book is out of sequence and the chapters aren't physically in their actual order.

I managed to read it once, and thought it was my favorite novel. Then, several years later, I attempted to reread it--just to make sure it was still my favorite--but got lost and gave up. I still don't know if it's my favorite novel or what.
posted by nasreddin at 12:42 PM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

The Illuminatus Trilogy, it was cute at first, but then I realized that it was like 800 pages of suck, and it became a grudge match. I wasn't going to let that book beat me by remaining unread.
posted by quin at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2008


Then again, I did love Gravity's Rainbow, which was, without a doubt, the dirtiest book I've ever read.

Ha, same for me. What made it far worse was that my dad gave it to me for Christmas one year. As I was reading it I was horrified, in that prudish way that children are with their parents, that he had read and enjoyed it, and felt that I would as well. I was much relieved when, after some inquisitive "So, dad, you liked Gravity's Rainbow a lot huh...?" it was revealed that he had not read it, but merely had it recommended to him by a friend whose taste in books he respected.
posted by Who_Am_I at 12:45 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


My shame as an anthropologist stems from never having read a single word by Margaret Mead. Not one.

Sorry, Dr. Gaughan!
posted by palindromic at 12:46 PM on July 28, 2008


The Illuminatus Trilogy, it was cute at first, but then I realized that it was like 800 pages of suck

Them's fightin' words around here.
posted by Who_Am_I at 12:47 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


She was a fraud anyway. Right?

Btw I think that there's much stronger social opprobrium around what music to like or not to like.
posted by jouke at 12:49 PM on July 28, 2008


There's way too many classical novels I've never even attempted... but I've watched all the various BBC adaptations over the years, so that sort of counts, right?

Though in the last 18 months or so I've tackled a few on audio and they seem to slip down much easier. Last Christmas after saying I'd do it for years I tried to read A Christmas Carol over the holiday and failed miserably... I'll try again next year.

Oh and even when I was at my most rabbidly fannish I never finished Dune, ever after a couple of attempts. And it took my three serious goes to get through Lord Of The Rings (though the second attempt ran ashore as I was trying to keep in front of the BBC Radio Adaptation that was being broadcast at the time.

How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Far too many Tom Clancy novels... especially the really really bad ones towards the end

And the all those Gor books... well maybe, I suppose I was 16 at the time and I did call a haly when all the wedges of 'philosophy' started to force out all the wholesome sex and gore

And way too many crappy Lustbader books... really should have stopped at the Ninja because it was a long slow downward slope after that.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:49 PM on July 28, 2008


Not to mention watching a film takes considerably less time than reading most books, especially the kinds of books that tend to be canonized. (Though I suppose you could argue that watching a film with an eye towards dissecting and understanding it can be as intense as studying a book closely.)

I think because films are so much quicker to watch than reading through a book it's easy to see how it would be just as embarrassing if not more so to admit to never having seen a classic. I mean, how hard is it to just go ahead and watch it? Yet people put it off (myself and apparently some critics included).

Thanks for your responses, Sys Rq and Bookhouse.

And in the spirit of the other posts I admit to having never read Crime and Punishment while at the same time being the only one in my high school English class to have actually enjoyed Madame Bovary. To each her/his own!
posted by wundermint at 12:50 PM on July 28, 2008


The Illuminatus Trilogy

Oh no you fnordn't
posted by cortex at 12:50 PM on July 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


The idea that someone should genuinely feel shame and embarrassment for not having read Crime and Punishment or To Kill A Mockingbird is ugly and elitist. It's implicitly dismissing huge tranches of the population as imbeciles.

It seemed to me that the people in the video weren't completely embarrassed because they hadn't read certain books, but because they had pretended like they had. (Also I don't think tranches is a word, and I'm not at all sure what you meant by it).

I'm embarrassed to have never read Anna Karenina. My friend gave me a very nice edition of it for my birthday, and I haven't even attempted it. She always asks me about it, though. It's one of those books I wish I could say that I've read, but never have been able to -- it just seems so daunting. I am embarrassed to say that I have read most of the young adult "Traveling Pants" books whilst volunteering in that section of my public library, but at least I have never read The da Vinci Code -- I can still hold my head partially up.
posted by bluefly at 12:50 PM on July 28, 2008


Watch our video above to find out.
No you fucking fucks. Find a copytaker.
posted by bonaldi at 12:55 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


...so you just used this thread to flaunt the books you have read? Talk about missing the point of the exercise.

No, nasreddin. I listed them to show that I have and will read practically anything, from trivial to the most daunting of the classics (more name dropping: Joyce, Rowling, Tolkien, McCaffrey, Card, Ondaatje, Márquez, Fuller, Hitler, Marx, Machiavelli. Everything, anything that comes my way I'll read. Don't get me started on children's books, either), and in spite of all that, I can't make a dent in the one you call "one of the most important books" in your life.

Some people don't have the time or the interest to read much, so it's not surprising when they admit to not having read to some classic tome. It's quite another to be a voracious reader with a high threshold for painful literature, and not be able to get through something that others regard so highly. That is the point of the game, for someone who should have read the book, to admit to not reading it.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:55 PM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Jonathan Livingston Seagull... oh dear, what a pile of hippy dippy shite.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:58 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ha! I read a bunch of his other books as well. And the Sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by Artw at 1:00 PM on July 28, 2008


It's quite fun actually to pick up for little money a heavily ornamented valuable looking 1930s edition of some croaking novel that nobody reads anymore, say Nobel prise winner Selma Lagerlöfs Gösta Berling, and present it to a friend with a glowing eulogy about how much you loved it yourself and how much effort you took to find an antique edition just for that friend.
And enquire regularly how he liked it.
posted by jouke at 1:00 PM on July 28, 2008 [10 favorites]


No, nasreddin. I listed them to show that I have and will read practically anything, from trivial to the most daunting of the classics (more name dropping: Joyce, Rowling, Tolkien, McCaffrey, Card, Ondaatje, Márquez, Fuller, Hitler, Marx, Machiavelli.

Well, you sound rather pleased with yourself, despite your setback.

(The Gay Science provides the philosophical context for Zarathustra--in retrospect the latter seems totally incomprehensible without the former. Try reading that first, it could help.)
posted by nasreddin at 1:02 PM on July 28, 2008


diogenes writes "I wonder how many people (that aren't Scientologists) can claim they read the whole thing. It's got to be a small group. I should start a club."

I'm in that club. Mostly because at the time I was buying most of my books from a discount second hand store and all their books were $0.25. So I could get either four 1cm thick books for my allowance that I'd have read before the week was out. Or I could buy a huge book plus three others and be set for well over a week.

My big shame is I've never completed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I get half way through The Two Towers and it's snooze city. It's on my "books to take with me for an extended hospital stay" list.
posted by Mitheral at 1:04 PM on July 28, 2008


signal, I totally hear you about Rayuela. I've owned it for two years, I've tried, I've loved his short stories (the collection with Bestiary was awesome) but that book just loses me. One day...

Oh, I'm one of those people who read the tome when they were 14 because it looked Significant and Important. I trudged through the Brothers Karamazov, fuelled by a crowd of frustrations, and I couldn't tell you a thing about it (except that I remember them talking about a mysterious instrument called a samovar a lot). I haven't really read those books, I've just looked at the lines for a while.

There are books I've picked up and ditched after a few pages because they just didn't strike me, but returned to after a while and found they were completely changed, despite spending the intervening years on the same shelf, gathering dust.

I figure I don't read enough, but the tick-box or tremble with shame approach to reading makes it sound dismal, like doing sit-ups or something.
posted by eponymouse at 1:08 PM on July 28, 2008


August Strindberg's Röda rummet. I'm a bad, bad Swede.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 1:09 PM on July 28, 2008


Oh, man, ourobouros, the second half of To The Lighthouse is the best part! I hated that book until it just sort of clicked for me during the last thirty pages or so, and then I suddenly loved it.

Caduceus, on your recommendation, I will try again. I actually liked the first part but ... I don't know, maybe my phone rang and I put it down and just never got around to picking it up again. And now it's become an accusing, terrible thing.
posted by ourobouros at 1:09 PM on July 28, 2008


Here's a few that I've never read, or at least never finished, and have no intention of doing so:

Catch-22
A Confederacy of Dunces
To Kill a Mockingbird (not sure if I finished it or not, if I did then I wish I hadn't.)
Anything by Dickens
Ulysses
Huck Finn
Wuthering Heights
posted by BigSky at 1:09 PM on July 28, 2008


I got tired of being embarrassed a few years ago and actually started reading some of them. In that time, I've knocked off War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Bleak House, Middlemarch, the first two volumes of Proust, and The Scarlet Letter.

They were all actually pretty good, although I thought Anna K. dragged quite a bit, and The Scarlet Letter was just as stiff as I remembered it being in high school, when I couldn't actually finish it. Proust really surprised me. I'm in the middle of the third volume and can see myself finishing the whole set if I pace myself correctly.

One's I'm embarrassed to have started and not finished are The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Don Quixote.

My big embarrassing omissions I think are anything by Jane Austen, any of the Brontes, Hemingway or Updike.
posted by hwestiii at 1:11 PM on July 28, 2008


I wonder how many people (that aren't Scientologists) can claim they read the whole thing. It's got to be a small group. I should start a club.

Where do I send my membership application? I read all ten.

Why? Because they were there.

And, yes, they sucked big time.

Books I'm embarrassed not to have read:

Any of the Harry Potter novels. As a SF and fantasy fan, these should be right up my alley but there's just something about him that rubs me the wrong way.

Books I'm embarrassed to have read:

The Firm by John Grisham. Watch the lawyer use his secret lawyer powers to weasel out of the sticky situation he's in, without regard to the inherent moral issues. Yay Lawyers. Look out for number one and screw everyone else.
posted by cjets at 1:11 PM on July 28, 2008


some croaking novel that nobody reads anymore, say Nobel prise winner Selma Lagerlöfs Gösta Berling

Heh, I've read that one, though. In high school. Selma is still going strong in Sweden, at least.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 1:13 PM on July 28, 2008


I read all the odd-numbered chapters of Anna Karenina. I think I got the gist of it, though.
posted by Shohn at 1:13 PM on July 28, 2008


bluefly, Tranches is a slice of French fiscal pie and if you had read Anna Karenina like you were supposed to instead of mucking about in the pubescent sewers of the Traveling Pants books you'd know that! But no, instead you shamelessly flaunt your imbecility and parade your ignorance of French fiscal pie before the illiterate cretins of Metafilter!

The most embarrassing thing I've read? This thread!
posted by xod at 1:15 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'd sooner read Hesse, Pynchon or Vonnegut than Ondaatje, Atwood or Proulx.

The English Patient has to be one of the most beautifully written books I've ever picked up. It has the power (along with nearly everything by James Salter) to make me want to throw everything down and take up writing, despite not being a particularly good writer.

Anyway, give it a shot, sometime.

As a young man, I decided I had to have "the classics" and bought a bunch in hardcover in some series that published them in "fancy" bindings. They're still sitting on my shelf, largely unread. The Red and the Black, Pride and Prejudice, Fathers and Sons, Faust...the list is long and storied.

Most embarrassed about reading? I generally am not embarrassed about books read except on behalf of the writers. The Age of Consent was pretty terrible, for example.
posted by maxwelton at 1:15 PM on July 28, 2008


Yes, I am quite pleased with myself, thank you. Feeling shitty about myself doesn't sound like an enjoyable alternative, really.

"The Gay Science, with a Prelude in Rhymes, and an Appendix of Songs" by Nietzsche? Is that a joke? Umm, I think I'll pass. Unless they're good dance tracks, I suppose.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2008


Anybody read The Celestine Prophecy here? Well not me, that's for sure. And even if I did, I didn't believe in it. And even if I did, I was very young and impressionable cut me some slack DON'T JUDGE
posted by theiconoclast31 at 1:16 PM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


bluefly writes "(Also I don't think tranches is a word, and I'm not at all sure what you meant by it)."

I think they meant branches. And tranches is a word, though it makes no sense in the context.
posted by Mitheral at 1:17 PM on July 28, 2008


Hamlet and Macbeth. Admitting you haven't read (or even seen a production of) either of those is tantamount to confessing total ignorance of Shakespeare's works. Which is, unfortunately, pretty close to the truth.

Also, as a former philosophy major from an ostensibly very good university, it's embarrassing to admit I've never read any Plato apart from a few excerpts.

Wow. Now that I think about it, triangulating between the admissions I just made permits one to pretty fairly conclude that I'm just plain uneducated. Ah well.
posted by decoherence at 1:18 PM on July 28, 2008


I started writing a kids' book, with a set of rabbit siblings as the main characters. I got three chapters into it, showed it to a friend, and she said, "Uhh, it's good, I like it. It sounds a lot like Watership Down."

I asked her, "Oh, yeah, I've heard of Watership Down. A lot of my friends liked it, I remember. Does Watership Down have rabbits in it?"

"You should read it."

It turns out I must have picked up the storyline through the collective cultural subconscious. I really liked it!

That said, really, there's too many books, too many pieces of music, too many movies, too many things out there to absorb, that I could never feel embarrassed about never having read/seen/heard this or that.

(I'm reading Don Quixote to my son, currently.)
posted by not_on_display at 1:20 PM on July 28, 2008


Dude, I owned a Jonathan Livingston Seagull LUNCHBOX in elementary school. Scarred me for life.

Catch-phrases I know about books I've never read:

The Good Soldier -- "unreliable narrator"
Molloy -- "interior monologue"
Anna Karenina -- OK, I actually was reading this and when I was about 400 pages in my mother walked through the room, noticed the book, and cheerfully asked, "Has she thrown herself under the train yet?" Thanks, Ma. Put it down, never to be picked back up again.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:20 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


"The Gay Science, with a Prelude in Rhymes, and an Appendix of Songs" by Nietzsche? Is that a joke? Umm, I think I'll pass. Unless they're good dance tracks, I suppose.

Sounds like Nietzsche's not your type, then.
Here and there I come into contact with German universities: what an atmosphere prevails among their scholars, what desolate spirituality ... For seventeen years I have never tired of calling attention to the despiritualizing influence of our current science-industry. The hard helotism to which the tremendous range of the sciences condemns every scholar today is a main reason why those with a fuller, richer, profounder disposition no longer find a congenial education and congenial educators. There is nothing of which our culture suffers more than of the superabundance of pretentious jobbers and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the real hothouses for this kind of withering of the instincts of the spirit. ... Who today would comprehend from what seriousness a philosopher seeks recreation here? Our cheerfulness is what is most incomprehensible about us.
- Twilight of the Idols
posted by nasreddin at 1:22 PM on July 28, 2008


Oh, I'm one of those people who read the tome when they were 14 because it looked Significant and Important.

I tried to read Shogun when I was in 6th grade, mostly because it was 1400 pages long and got lots of comments, but also because I had watched the miniseries on tv and thought I might enjoy the book. I did actually make it about 1/4 of the way through. The funniest part of that was my teacher (of my Reading class nonetheless, where we just sat and read whatever we wanted for 50 minutes) demanding a note from my mother explaining that, yes, she knew her son was reading a grownup book where, allegedly (I never made it that far), someone has sex.
posted by Who_Am_I at 1:30 PM on July 28, 2008


I've never read any Plato apart from a few excerpts.

I had a Greek Classics professor tell me that the only people he knew that had finished Plato's Republic were, at the time they read it, a) over 30 or b) extremely bored.

Being contrary and 18, I immediately went out, bought a copy, and started reading it. I think I made it halfway.
posted by elfgirl at 1:31 PM on July 28, 2008


Nasreddin: Yes, because guilting people into reading books has always served to foster literary appreciation.

If you don't feel it, you don't feel it. It doesn't mean you have poor judgment; it means judgment is inherently subjective.


"Judgment is inherently subjective"--well, no, it's not, and I doubt you believe that yourself. If you hear someone saying "Sidney Sheldon is a better writer than Shakespeare" or "Britney Spears is the greatest musical genius since Bach" you don't think "yes, well, that's obviously just the way he sees it, and it's no better or worse a way of seeing the world than any other, do you?

There's an ineradicable streak of subjectivism in judgment, to be sure, but in fact two widely read literate people will tend to agree more often than not as to what constitutes good writing and what doesn't (please--before you say "but my friend and I agree about x, y and z but disagree violently about p, note that I agree that there is an "ineradicable streak of subjectivism").

Now, does that mean you have to pretend to like Jane Austen even if you find her boring? No. (And I made that point in my original comment). But does it mean that you're somehow the one person with vision in the land of the blind? That you've somehow "seen through" Austen and everyone else is just reading her out of duty? THAT's what I was objecting to in my first comment--the tone of smug self-satisfaction so many people were assuming in saying "oh, I'm far too cool to bother with musty old crap like Flaubert" (Flaubert!!--jesus christ!).

So how about instead of saying "Oh, I tried it in high school and got bored, therefore it must be crap and I'll never try it again" you people try thinking "you know, if so many people who are smarter and wiser than me think this is pretty special, maybe I should try it again every so often and see if perhaps I've gained sufficient experience of the world and sufficient knowledge of people to begin to see what it is they see when they read this book.

Maybe you'll stay unmoved and unpersuaded, but at least you'll have proved that you're open to the possibility of becoming a more interesting person than the one you are now.
posted by yoink at 1:32 PM on July 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


Top of my list to read: The Great Gatsby
Tried several times but failed: Catch-22, Moby Dick, Ulysses
Re-reading now: Camus's major works (not as impressed as I was 20 years ago)

Most embarrassing: Dean Koontz and John Saul (pre-college horror binge)
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 1:33 PM on July 28, 2008


I keep thinking I should read Proust, because, you know, it's there and I've never made it through Boswell's Life of Johnson even though it sat on my bedside table for years and years gathering dust but honestly I've pretty much come to terms with the fact that at this point in my life, I want primarily to be entertained by books and any deep thinking that comes out of them is secondary. When I was in high school and college I could and did read pretty much every classic (also cereal boxes, romance novels - eeee - and anything else I could get my hands on) but nowadays I find it really difficult and not that rewarding to delve into the idiom of past centuries. I also can't be bothered, for the most part, with Great Contemporary Literature, particularly since most of it is like a New Yorker story but longer: Nothing Happens for 347 pages of dreariness. I recognize all this as a fault and so on but frankly, I have so much else to get angsted out over in the middle of the night that worrying about what books I haven't read is like a mild and refreshing break from the shame wars. I would, however, like the several hours I spent reading The Da Vinci Code back so I could spend them doing something more pleasant - perhaps dental surgery.

I loved, loved, loved and still love Winter's Tale.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:33 PM on July 28, 2008


Sys Rq: it is often (though certainly not always) the case that so-called Classics are merely half-formed seedlings.

Care to name some examples of writers who have produced these "perfected" versions of what Austen, Melville, Flaubert and Tolstoy were struggling (in their primitive and benighted way) to achieve?
posted by yoink at 1:34 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


I have found that dailylit has been helpful for knocking off all those classics I never got around to reading.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 1:34 PM on July 28, 2008


I still haven't read Catcher in the Rye. Not sure how that escaped me in high school.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:37 PM on July 28, 2008


I have had Middlemarch sitting on my bookshelf for three years. The little I read gave me the impression that a bunch of people get married in the first few chapters and then regret it for the next 400 pages. Jesus Christ.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:39 PM on July 28, 2008


That you've somehow "seen through" Austen and everyone else is just reading her out of duty?THAT's what I was objecting to in my first comment--the tone of smug self-satisfaction

If that's what you're against, then we're on the same side. I want to burn those people at the stake.

Two fascinating discussions at Varieties of Unreligious Experience, a brilliant, brilliant blog:

On Affliction and Reading
Aesthetics with a Hammer (against literary appreciation)
posted by nasreddin at 1:41 PM on July 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Once is Not Enough - Jacqueline Susanne
When I was 10 my mother had me return this loaned book to a neighbor. 2 days later I delivered it, embarrassed and mentally soiled.
To that I've tried Joyce and can't do it.
posted by pianomover at 1:44 PM on July 28, 2008


... maybe I should try it again every so often and see if perhaps I've gained sufficient experience of the world and sufficient knowledge of people to begin to see what it is they see when they read this book.

Yoink, I think that's totally right. For all the books that I self-flagellate for not having finished, there are dozens more that have tried more than once and, on the second time around, really loved. George Eliot is my best example. After having been forced to read Silas Marner in 9th grade, I dismissed Eliot completely -- I thought she was a boring, pointless, moralizing twit. And then, fifteen years later, I picked up Daniel Deronda and couldn't put it down. And then I read Middlemarch. I still haven't gotten around to rereading Silas Marner, but I suspect that the reason I disliked it so much was because I didn't understand it at all the first time I read it.

For all you Austen-haters out there: same deal. I think many people are forced to read Austen long before they have the maturity to enjoy it. If your hatred of Austen dates from 9th grade, please, I beg you to try her again. She's like that smart-ass aunt who's always making sarcastic comments under her breath at family gatherings.
posted by ourobouros at 1:45 PM on July 28, 2008


elfgirl: I think a lot of philosophy is actually best ingested via secondary sources. Especially works in translation, where you'll be missing out on possible linguistic nuances anyway. You can certainly get the "meat" of Plato in 100 pages of well-written exposition.

A big exception that an earlier comment brings to mind is Nietzsche. What a great stylist.
posted by decoherence at 1:46 PM on July 28, 2008


I can thoroughly not recommend the Jane Austin Bookclub, FWIW. While we’re making embarrassing admissions and all…
posted by Artw at 1:47 PM on July 28, 2008


Oh no you

That's weird cortex, it's like your comment is just cut off there.
posted by drezdn at 1:50 PM on July 28, 2008


tranche [trahnsh]
Noun
an installment or portion, esp. of a loan or share issue: the new shares will be offered in four tranches around the world.
I am so glad I came back to this thread! I have learned a new word that I can hardly wait to spring on my non-nerd readers who were puzzled by computer-fu.
But how to use it? Does it slide sleekly into the food area? "Have a hot dog and try a tranche of potato salad"? Or should it be restricted only to financial matters or at least French food? "Would you like a trance of vichyssoise"?
posted by Cranberry at 1:51 PM on July 28, 2008


I would have probably really liked Catcher in the Rye if I read it during high school. I tried reading it later, but just couldn't get into it.

Gravity's Rainbow is at the top of my list for books I want to read but just haven't got around to.
posted by drezdn at 1:53 PM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I kept waiting for someone to let me in on the joke, and then threw it at the wall when I reached the last page and realized no one was going to. What precious, pretentious crap.

When you don't have anything interesting to say, exploit an autistic protagonist and have him say it, I guess.

Anna Karenina -- OK, I actually was reading this and when I was about 400 pages in my mother walked through the room, noticed the book, and cheerfully asked, "Has she thrown herself under the train yet?" Thanks, Ma. Put it down, never to be picked back up again.

And I guess you don't want anyone else to pick it up, either. Thanks for the meta-spoiler, though.
posted by regicide is good for you at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2008


My god, the list is so long I can't begin. It's, it's just staggering how little of great literature I've read. My SE (spousal equivalent) is wending her way through Dostoevsky, Austen, and Joyce, while I basically read Franken (Al) and Barry (Dave). I'm a pathetic loser when it comes to lit. Just shoot me now.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2008


She's like that smart-ass aunt who's always making sarcastic comments under her breath at family gatherings.

Yeah, I think what got me most pissed off in this thread was the people tossing off snide put-downs of Austen as if she's some twee chick-lit fad. It's like hearing some moron say "Einstein? That's the knucklehead who couldn't understand Newtonian physics, right?"

Austen is one of the most viciously funny writers in the English language. She's also one of the most cool-minded analysts of the point where people's attachment to a "romantic" ideal buts up against hard economic realities. If you think that she's just Harlequin Romance with longer sentences it means you're not (yet) capable of understanding her.
posted by yoink at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2008 [8 favorites]


I've read quite a bit of Plato, I like Plato. But, honestly, if you're going to read philosophy as a matter of cultural literacy you would do better to read the early moderns:

Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, with a dash of Hobbes, Pascal, and Malebranche for good measure. (I would add Kant, but he is all but impenetrable.)
posted by oddman at 2:02 PM on July 28, 2008


And I guess you don't want anyone else to pick it up, either. Thanks for the meta-spoiler, though.

It's a hundred and twenty years old!
posted by Bookhouse at 2:07 PM on July 28, 2008


Care to name some examples of writers who have produced these "perfected" versions of what Austen, Melville, Flaubert and Tolstoy were struggling (in their primitive and benighted way) to achieve?

If you'll go back and read my first comment, you'll find that I qualified my position with the word assuming; that was not just a figure of speech.

I haven't taken any Lit courses, and as such I have not been the slightest bit compelled to read anything by any of those authors. Perhaps you'd like to enlighten me and my ilk as to the current relevance of hundred-and-fifty-year-old books, and why a person must be an uneducated philistine if they dare to prefer contemporary literature they've chosen according to their tastes over what their English professors force upon them?
posted by Sys Rq at 2:10 PM on July 28, 2008


Most embarrassing book I ever admitted to reading?

When I was 12 I was reading a book about the Kennedy assasination. I think it was the first book I ever read with footnotes.

When an 18 year old neighbor and his dad asked me about the book, I told them I enjoyed it, but, trying to impress them, I told them I read another book that was much better (After all, this other book was mentioned in the footnotes so many times that it must be good).

The name of the book? IBID

It took me several years to live that down.
posted by cjets at 2:13 PM on July 28, 2008 [15 favorites]


Gravity's Rainbow is a book that I've tried to read a couple of times. Every time it goes like this:

Oh hey! Man, I bet I could get through Gravity's Rainbow this time! I do have a long train ride to work, after all! So what if it takes me a month or longer, I can handle that!

Oh wow! This is awesome! I totally forgot how great these beginning chapters are! I wonder what stopped me from finishing this all those other times?

Fuck, now I remember when my old art teacher told me to keep a little notebook with me so I can note everyone's name and job and relationships to one another. I forget which scientist this guy is.

Ok, now who the fuck am I reading about? What's all this with the sibling sex in chains and stuff? Shit, this is the hard part. This is the part that I've had trouble getting through in the past. I can do it, though! I can soldier through.

You know what? I don't think this is my time to finish this book. I'm just way confused right now and I'm not even sure who the hell I've been reading about for the past 50 pages. I'm sorry Alan Moore, I know this is one of your favorite books and all, but shit I'm burned out. also, the crying of lot 49 sucked so this'll probably suck, too. Yeah, I bet this book just sucks, anyway. Yeah, that's it. This book sucks, that's why I'm stopping.

A year or so later...

Oh hey! Man, I bet I could get through Gravity's Rainbow this time!
posted by shmegegge at 2:17 PM on July 28, 2008 [8 favorites]


So much silly Three Stooges humor.

there is no such thing as silly Three Stooges humor.

*poke Afroblanco in eyes*
posted by jonmc at 2:22 PM on July 28, 2008


I AM ASHAMED I READ THE CELESTINE PROFECY!!!!!!
(whew, needed to get that off my chest. )
posted by liza at 2:24 PM on July 28, 2008


And I guess you don't want anyone else to pick it up, either. Thanks for the meta-spoiler, though.
I missed the original spoiler and then read yours. Thanks for the metametaspoiler, chucklehead.
posted by bonaldi at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2008


Never read Heart of Darkness but I saw Apocalypse Now so fuck it.
posted by basicchannel at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2008


How about books that you are embarrassed to have read?

Oh god... I've just remembered reading a Jeffrey Archer novel. OK, it was a newspaper serialization, but I don't think that counts as mitigating circumstances in this case.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:25 PM on July 28, 2008


Sys Rq: I haven't taken any Lit courses, and as such I have not been the slightest bit compelled to read anything by any of those authors. Perhaps you'd like to enlighten me and my ilk as to the current relevance of hundred-and-fifty-year-old books, and why a person must be an uneducated philistine if they dare to prefer contemporary literature they've chosen according to their tastes over what their English professors force upon them?

Why, I'm delighted to help. You're a philistine if you dismiss something merely because it is a "hundred-and-fifty-years-old" because you're arbitrarily deciding that only the experience of people relatively close to your historical period could be in any way illuminating to you. That is just small-minded parochialism--no different than saying "of course I wouldn't read anything written by an African" or "why should I read it if it wasn't originally written in English"?

You're a philistine if you dismiss as boring an irrelevant books that you haven't (by your own admission) even read (and you're a double philistine if you dismiss those unread books as crude sketches that have been perfected by contemporary works). It's the great hallmark of philistinism to be sublimely confident of the valuelessness of cultural artifacts which the philistine hasn't actually experienced. I'm willing to bet a reasonably large sum of money that you roll your eyes and sneer when you hear about religious groups boycotting movies they've never seen--well, how do you like what you see in the mirror?

It's philistine to assume that no one else (say, for example, people who have dedicated their lives to reading widely and intensely--you know, "English professors") can possibly have any insights or gifts to offer you that might--with a little effort on your part--expand and enrich your world. Philistines everywhere are happy with what they know they know, and happily sure that everyone else is an idiot or a faker. "Oh, those elitist snobs don't REALLY enjoy all that caterwauling in opera--they just listen to it because they want to congratulate themselves on being smart"--you know the kind of thing.

Finally, it's philistine to have no interest in history, no interest in how you became who you are. Philistines are always deeply suspicious of history (other than the cardboard cut-out "heroes of our nation" kind). They don't like to know that their beliefs and opinions are the result of historical and cultural forces that might have developed in any one of a number of ways; they prefer to believe simply that they know the TRUTH, that the way they see the world is the RIGHT way to see the world, and that everybody else is just wrong.
posted by yoink at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


And I guess you don't want anyone else to pick it up, either. Thanks for the meta-spoiler, though.

It's a hundred and twenty years old!


And Stegosauri are 145 million years old, but I've still never danced with one.
posted by regicide is good for you at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2008


shmegegge - have you tried Voice of the Fire?
posted by Artw at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2008


*looks up Voice of the Fire*

No, I have not read it.
posted by shmegegge at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2008


But how to use it? Does it slide sleekly into the food area? "Have a hot dog and try a tranche of potato salad"? Or should it be restricted only to financial matters or at least French food? "Would you like a trance of vichyssoise"?

Beware, Cranberry. Tranche is the Agent Smith of new favourite words. It starts replacing more and more vocabulary until one tranche... uh, I mean tranche day... tranche no! It's happe- tranche. Tranche, tranche tranche. Tranche!
posted by RokkitNite at 2:35 PM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's a hundred and twenty years old!

And Stegosauri are 145 million years old, but I've still never danced with one.


Hate to spoil it for you, but they are lousy at it. And don't let them step on your toes.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:37 PM on July 28, 2008


*looks up Voice of the Fire*

No, I have not read it.


Ahh... you have a treat in store... it's like your Gravities Rainbow experience except it cuts in at chapter 1, and Alan Moore actually wrote it rather than liking it.
posted by Artw at 2:41 PM on July 28, 2008


The Celestine Prophecy is probably the dumbest book ever written. And yes, I read it, on a boring bus ride in Bolivia.
posted by signal at 2:42 PM on July 28, 2008


Regarding Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, et al. : Well, these weren't exactly meant to be read, so MeFites who never read these outside of a classroom would get a pass by my reckoning.

Of course, this does not apply to English or Drama majors. Which means I still have no excuse.
posted by Weebot at 2:49 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I attended a Sikh wedding a little while ago and I was embarrassed to realize that I didn't even know the name of the primary Sikh scripture (Gurū Granth Sāhib) much less have I read any of it, even though I've read or at least skimmed through the scriptures of all the other major religions I know of.
posted by XMLicious at 2:53 PM on July 28, 2008


"A man should read as his fancy takes him, for what he reads as a chore will do him little good." - Samuel Johnson
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:57 PM on July 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


shmegegge - I'm in the same Gravity's Rainbow loop myself.
posted by eyeballkid at 3:00 PM on July 28, 2008


"A man should read as his fancy takes him, for what he reads as a chore will do him little good." - Samuel Johnson

A-FUCKING-MEN!

posted by jonmc at 3:03 PM on July 28, 2008


Never read Heart of Darkness but I saw Apocalypse Now so fuck it.

Well, judging from the script, I'm pretty sure Coppola never read it either, so your excuse doesn't cut the mustard. THE MUSTARD REMAINS UN-CUT, I SAY!
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:04 PM on July 28, 2008


I'm in the same Gravity's Rainbow loop myself.
As someone who made it out the other end twice, I'm warning you--it's not really all that worth it. I mean, kinda. But the first half is the good one.
posted by nasreddin at 3:06 PM on July 28, 2008


Oh, man, ourobouros, the second half of To The Lighthouse is the best part!

Yeah, for what it's worth, it's my favorite novel of all time, and James Ramsay in the second half is probably the best description of a teenager that I've ever read. Why, the book is so good, I make stupid references to it in MetaTalk!

I first read To The Lighthouse in '01, I think. Since then, I've probably reread it about five to ten times. Which is funny, 'cause I'm actually embarrassed, as a result, by the lack of other Woolf books that I've taken in; whenever I start another one of her novels, and I find myself getting into the rhythm of her prose, I start yearning for To The Lighthouse instead. As a result, I've kinda had to force myself to get through some of her other works so that I don't have to deal with the following conversation happening over and over again:

Me: OMG VIRGINIA WOOLF BEST AUTHOR EVAR
Stranger: Oh, have you read Orlando? Let's talk about that!
Me: Uh well no I have not read such as like Orlando
Stranger: Oh, okay. How about The Waves?
Me: Uh technically no I have not so much seen that book with my eyes
Stranger: Okay... The Voyage Out?
Me: ...
Me: (sucker-punches stranger, runs away, finds solace once again in the description of Lily Briscoe's annoyance at Mr. Ramsay talking about his boots)
posted by Greg Nog at 3:09 PM on July 28, 2008 [7 favorites]


The Illuminatus Trilogy, it was cute at first, but then I realized that it was like 800 pages of suck, and it became a grudge match.

Hey now! No shitting on the Illuminatus Trilogy. I read that book when I was 15 and it changed my life! Seriously!

I wouldn't call it a classic, though. Robert Anton Wilson, was, for me, the Jerry Garcia of literature. Sure, I liked his stuff a lot more when I was younger, and I don't find myself dipping back into it much these days. But were it not for him, I may not have been able to appreciate some of what I do enjoy now.

(Blues and bluegrass in the case of Garcia, Eco and Pynchon in the case of Wilson.)
posted by Afroblanco at 3:12 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm in the Mission Earth club too. The thing is, the books are quick reads--I could easily get through a volume in two days, and not full-time reading on those two days, either. By the time it occurred to me "this really isn't good," I was already halfway through the fourth volume, and felt compelled to finish it.

Embarrassed not to have read: all Dickens except A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Hard Times. It's precisely because I read those three and enjoyed them all that I'm embarrassed never to have gotten around to the rest of his corpus.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:13 PM on July 28, 2008


The one I tried twice, attempting to mine it for story ideas: Boccaccio's The Decameron. Around the 25th story, they all start to sound the same. By the 50th, you're convinced they're all being told by the same character. I don't know what it would have been like by the 75th.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:18 PM on July 28, 2008


I don't know what it would have been like by the 75th.

You actually melt into the paper like a sick science experiment. But unlike accidentally swallowing and then absorbing The Little Book Of Calm, you don't become enlightened and understanding. No. You just bore the everliving shit out of people.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:22 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I couldn't finish Rebecca West's Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, which is the book to read about Yugoslavia. But it was very long and I felt like I knew everyone in it already. Also, I'm a little ashamed that being both Slavic and somewhat Russian-speaking and a big reader, I can't name a single Russian novel that didn't just bore me to tears. I've read most of the well-known ones, and I've held many others in my hand at the bookshop, while reaching for cash. But something says, never again.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:25 PM on July 28, 2008


turgid dahlia: Well, the man disliked John Donne for being too clever, so of course you'd expect him to say something like that about "hard" literature! :-P
posted by Weebot at 3:29 PM on July 28, 2008


I couldn't finish Rebecca West's Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, which is the book to read about Yugoslavia.

I always hear that it's Bridge Over the Dvina, but I've never read it.

I can't name a single Russian novel that didn't just bore me to tears

Not even The Master and Margarita?
Maybe try Erofeev's Москва-Петушки?
posted by nasreddin at 3:30 PM on July 28, 2008


Hey now! No shitting on the Illuminatus Trilogy

I liked a lot of the concepts in it, and some of the stuff that spun off from it is nothing short of brilliant, but the book itself irritated me to no end. Though, it really shouldn't have been my first choice here. I forgot all about the brain poundingly stupid offense to words, paper, binding, and sanity that is the Celestine Prophecy.

Which is weird, because I've been pretty vocal of my hatred for it in the past.
posted by quin at 3:32 PM on July 28, 2008


I've never read all of Philosophical Investigations.
Which is embarassing only because I wrote it.
posted by wittgenstein at 3:34 PM on July 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


OK, tranch and tranche are really words. I'm terribly sorry xod. According to the OED,
tranch, v.
trans. To carve (a sturgeon or other fish).

So, Cranberry, that's another meaning you can try and work into conversation. And this thread has made me want to at least start Anna Karenina; the spoilers posted make it seem much more exciting than I previously thought.
posted by bluefly at 3:37 PM on July 28, 2008


See now that's funny, wittgenstein, because, despite it's having been on my shelf for the last ten years, I've never read A Philosophical Investigation, in which the killer is code named Wittgenstein.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:39 PM on July 28, 2008


Uh, I meant Drina. The Dvina is another river entirely.
posted by nasreddin at 3:44 PM on July 28, 2008


Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Milton, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Proust. Little to none of all of those authors.

I can't get into Phillip Roth or Salman Rushdie, even though everyone else thinks they're brilliant. I couldn't finish Ulysses (big shocker).

And yes, I was an English major.
posted by zardoz at 3:44 PM on July 28, 2008


I once tried to read Ulysses as a cure for insomnia. It didn't work.

I got more than 500 pages in and I'm embarrassed to say I have no fucking clue as to what he was going on about.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:45 PM on July 28, 2008


I wasn't so much embarrassed as resentful at the waste of perfectly good trees that was Paulo Coehlo's 'The Alchemist'. Vacuous shite masquerading as profundity.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 3:53 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


OK, tranch and tranche are really words. I'm terribly sorry xod.

Oh, so you think you can just traipse back in here with an apology but still without having read Anna Karenina?!!
posted by xod at 3:53 PM on July 28, 2008


yoink: You're a philistine if you dismiss [...]

Uh, I'm not dismissing anything; quite the opposite, in fact. I'm giving Those Who Know an opportunity to educate us lowly philistines regarding what makes these books so capital-gee Great. For what reasons, besides blunt-force insistence, are they considered required reading?

If anyone's willing to type out a straight answer without the condescension and name-calling, that'd be greatly appreciated.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:01 PM on July 28, 2008


I never go anywhere without a Trollope.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:15 PM on July 28, 2008


I don't really understand how anyone can be embarassed about a reading a book they've actually finished. I mean, anything I might be embarassed to say I've read was tossed after the first chapter or two.

Seriously, is it just that you're ashamed for LIKING these books and not actually over having read them? Or do some people just have a higher tolerance for shit-erature than I do?

And hey.. what the hell is wrong with Jonathan Livingston Seagull?

Personally, I am most embarassed for not having finished Hitchiker's Guide, mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed the parts I have read.
posted by sunshinesky at 4:20 PM on July 28, 2008


Most embarrased to have read? Without a doubt "Atlas Shrugged." I did it for sex. The upside is that at least now I know what the enemy is thinking.

For those who haven't been able to get through Gravity's Rainbow, it took me five or six times to get through it once, and then five or six more attempts over twenty years to get through it the second time. Just keep plowing through and don't worry about not getting everything. The stuff that you do get will make it worth the effort, and there is always the next time. Really.

I know that must sound kind of sad and perverse, but it really is an extraordinary book. I can't think of anything else I've ever read that piled up such a quantity of invention between two covers.
posted by hwestiii at 4:41 PM on July 28, 2008


what makes these books so capital-gee Great

Well, the request is a bit absurd (if you want to know why, see Cliff's Notes), but, wrt the authors I mentioned above (Austen, Melville, Flaubert and Tolstoy), here you go:

Austen I covered above

Melville: delerious prose-poetry of the most intoxicating kind. Melville puts the whole of Western Lit in a blender and sends you out sailing on a turbulent sea of allusions, puns, half-caught echoes. To read Melville is to find yourself remapping the literary and philosophical world. Bonus: he makes the world of C19th whaling come brilliantly to life--a sudden step into a lost world. Double bonus: a fabulous quest-narrative which is gripping at the level of narrative; a perfect vehicle for Melville's allusive style (we're on a grail quest and we're tilting at windmills etc. etc.) and is itself a kind of elusive "white whale"--a master symbol that will always escape our attempts to hunt it down and "explain" it.

Flaubert: where to begin? Madame Bovary is the obvious example, although I prefer "L'education sentimentale." For a start it's simply a privilege to be exposed to such a whip-smart mind and a prose style that combines an extraordinarily labile grace with sinews of steel. But more than that, in "Education Sentimentale" you have a portrait of an age that manages to achieve epic sweep with no sense of epic ponderousness or pretension. You also see in many ways, in Frederic Moreau, the first fully-realized portrait of that the modern disaffected youth, dying to find some higher ideal worthy of his belief in an age that seems to lurch from falsehood to falsehood and adopting a reflexive cynicism as a kind of protective mechanism against disappointment.

Tolstoy, similarly, offers us the real virtues of "epic" (comprehensiveness, the summation of a culture's major concerns, beliefs and fears in compressed form) with an almost magical ability to show how individual lives articulate with these sweeping historical forces. People who skim through the historical parts of "War and Peace" are really missing the point of the novel. The love stories and so forth--wonderful and engrossing as they are--are not a kind of "spoonful of sugar" to make the medicine of his reflections about Napoleon go down. What Tolstoy wants us to think about is the way we live our lives, so to speak, fractally--that what occurs at the scale of our individual concerns is nested in vast historical occurrences that we may be entirely ignorant about, but which will form our lives regardless. Similarly, he is interested in the ways in which the individuals at the "head" of these vast historical forces (such as Napoleon) may in fact be utterly powerless in the face of the historical forces they have played their part in unleashing.

So, there's just a few reasons off the top of my head to read these works. But the main reason is that they're just fucking amazingly enjoyable to read. If you're trudging through them as a duty, then put them down--you're not ready to read them. You don't take them like a dose of medicine to make you "better." When you're ready to read them, you'll simply find yourself saying "I can't believe I've missed out on such an amazing experience for so long."

I've got not objection to anyone saying "I tried it, I didn't like it." What can you do--if you didn't, you didn't? Just don't say "therefore it's obviously crap" or "so I'm never going to try it or anything like it again." You're turning the key on a world of riches if you do that.
posted by yoink at 4:51 PM on July 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


Lolita.
Although I have a book club meeting for it next week, so I better start.
posted by mesh gear fox at 5:03 PM on July 28, 2008


I have to remind myself not to pretend I have read The Windup Bird Chronicles because by all reports it is exactly the kind of book I love but other stuff keeps getting in the way. I have read Norwegian Wood, but apparently that's the least Murakami-y of all his books.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 5:08 PM on July 28, 2008


The one book I'm actually mildly upset I can't get through is 'The Three Musketeers'. The first few chapters are funny, and then I just don't bother picking it up again. It gets buried under lighter fare, which half the time includes 'The Club Dumas', which pokes me into picking 3-M up again and then some shit happens at work and it all cycles over again.

It only took me 8 years to read Pynchon's V, from the time my high school English teacher gave it to me, but I felt pretty good about it now. That same teacher introduced me to Gogol and I was one of the few cubes to fall angle over angle over Melville.

I am ashamed to have read a bunch of John Saul when I was fourteen or so and done with most of the King I could find at the used bookstore. Earlier this summer I picked up some at a 'shove it in a bag and give us a dollar' sale and re-read one. Abso-fucking-lutely terrible.

Justify Austin all you want - go to school with a fancy-pants smart-ass who is part of the Austin society and all bets are off. Right into the Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator. I just don't care.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 5:34 PM on July 28, 2008


I'm not ashamed of the books whose first ten pages I read in English classes in college. There comes a point, as an English major, where you develop a filter. Some books are worth the work—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, for example, or even some really dense philosophy texts...

...but then there's Wieland, The Last of the Mohicans, Looking Backward, Little Women, and The Female Man. American literature classes: where you read everyone but the really interesting and entertaining writers.

Dickens was also pretty dismal; I can't stand his style.

I am, however, ashamed that I haven't read many of the classics at all. Excerpts from The Odyssey, and the first third of The Aeneid...
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:36 PM on July 28, 2008


I read the entire Mission Earth series in junior high as well. All I remember is something about a cheese grater.
posted by mrbill at 5:36 PM on July 28, 2008


I read the entire Mission Earth series in junior high as well. All I remember is something about a cheese grater.

The library had only the first six volumes, and I read them all in the sixth grade. All I remember is the cheese grater thing, too. Battlefield Earth actually wasn't that bad, though.

I think Burroughs and Naked Lunch ruined the Illuminatus! Trilogy for me.
Well, that and the fact it sucked.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:05 PM on July 28, 2008


If the professor asks why, the answer is "the fall of Man."

Work "weltanshaung" into your paper = instant A.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:12 PM on July 28, 2008


Naked Lunch killed I!T, but Dan Brown brought it back.
posted by cortex at 6:16 PM on July 28, 2008


sunshinesky writes "I mean, anything I might be embarassed to say I've read was tossed after the first chapter or two."

If only I had that kind of will power.
posted by Mitheral at 6:18 PM on July 28, 2008


In my tenth grade literature class, I wrote an essay on The Sun Also Rises. I didn't read it and I still have not read it. At the time I viewed it as a bold act of rebellion against a teacher that was a complete jerk. OK, I was also being lazy. I now teach English literature classes to tenth graders. I try not to be a jerk.
posted by Macduff at 7:01 PM on July 28, 2008


Work "weltanshaung" into your paper = instant A.

and A+ if you spell it "weltanschauung."
posted by exlotuseater at 7:22 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Embarassed not to have read:

Anything by Jane Austen. Makes me feel like I fail at being a girl.

19th Century novels depicting angst amid the teacups (the Brontës, Flaubert, etc). Dipped into a few, didn't understand the social conventions, got impatient with the self-inflicted misery, concluded Victorians were wack.

Any Russian literature apart from Crime and Punishment. Had to read this in high school, got hopelessly confused by all the Russian nicknames, thought the cop and the bad guy were the same person, concluded that Russian novels are wack. *looks around nervously for nasreddin*

Any classical philosophy. Had Plato's "Myth of the Cave" forced on me in high school, head exploded from metaphor overload, decided a career in hard science was the best way to avoid further exposure to impenetrable classics, concluded that philosophy is wack. *crosses fingers, hopes LobsterMitten doesn't pop into this thread*


Not embarassed to have read but a little embarassed to have enjoyed:

The Da Vinci Code. Eh, it was a long flight - what else was I supposed to do?
posted by Quietgal at 7:28 PM on July 28, 2008


Being an English student, I realize every day that I will never manage to read all the books that I want to. I'm particularly interested in poetry, and one summer I was hanging out with friends at a cafe at a state Uni. (not mine). We were drinking coffee and hanging out, and there were a bunch of Greek students that were taking summer classes, and they ended up joining us. The conversation turned to favorite poets, and one of the women asked me whether I liked "Kavafis," and I had no idea what she was talking about. She clearly thought I was an undereducated, narrow-minded American idiot.

Later that night I realized she was referring to Constantine Cavafy. I read him the following day, but I was embarrassed to have not read him before that.

There's plenty that I will get to when I have a chance, but as many commenters have pointed out, some books choose their readers, instead of the other way 'round.

I meant to read a bunch of books this summer, but my summer has been hijacked by the responsibility falling on my shoulders from a sick parent, so none of the reading I was hoping for has taken place. Perhaps next year.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:33 PM on July 28, 2008


Mitheral, are you some sort of crazed bibliophile? I don't see how it takes much, if any will power to cut a shitty story short.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:56 PM on July 28, 2008


Well it's two things. For the merely mediocre author I often get hooked by the first chapter or two and then I.Must.Know.What.Happened. Silly but true. IMO the peak of inconsiderate evilness is a writer who leaves a bunch of loose ends hanging out at the end of a novel. It's especially crazy because I rarely care about acquaintance or celebrity gossip yet I'm dieing to find out what happened to the butler's dog on page 23.

However the worst of the drivel is when I've had no choice. Rarely can I get to sleep without reading at least a little and especially when I was travelling a lot as a student the selection was very poor. Fighting off insomnia would drive me to reading the water stained paperback left behind on the back of the toilet by the last inhabitant. And then once I slogged through the first 50 pages or so I revert to behaviour 1. Luckily this vector at least has been almost eliminated now the I've got continuous access to my library. It's only the misleading art work and back cover blurbs that suck me in now.
posted by Mitheral at 8:30 PM on July 28, 2008


I'm not ashamed of the books I haven't read, but I would be ashamed if I were one of those people who is proud of the books they haven't read. Or maybe I wouldn't... I'd just sit there smug in my choice to not try something new.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:43 PM on July 28, 2008


I've never read the "Unbearable Lightness of Being" nor "Love in the Time of Cholera."

They're about girls, right?

Someone please get that.
posted by naoko at 8:49 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have this yearly-ish ritual where I start reading Ulysses, get really into it, then around the halfway mark (somewhere around Gertie and the beach, anyway) something comes up and makes me too busy to read for a couple weeks, and then I try to pick it up again but have no idea what's going on anymore, so I give up, until next year. I think I've done this 4 times now.
posted by naoko at 8:57 PM on July 28, 2008


Melville: delerious prose-poetry of the most intoxicating kind. Melville puts the whole of Western Lit in a blender and sends you out sailing on a turbulent sea of allusions, puns, half-caught echoes. To read Melville is to find yourself remapping the literary and philosophical world. Bonus: he makes the world of C19th whaling come brilliantly to life--a sudden step into a lost world. Double bonus: a fabulous quest-narrative which is gripping at the level of narrative; a perfect vehicle for Melville's allusive style (we're on a grail quest and we're tilting at windmills etc. etc.) and is itself a kind of elusive "white whale"--a master symbol that will always escape our attempts to hunt it down and "explain" it.

Yes.

After ruminating on this thread a bit, I recalled that my mother actually named me Christophe because she was reading a novel by Romain Rolland (some French turd -- don't ask me) called Jean Christophe that was 7568 pages long, and she adored it. She gave me a copy when I was a teen, and I got about 7/8th's of the way through it before realizing how much I was torturing myself. She asked for the original back a few years ago because it was "so special," and she sent me a BRAND NEW COPY OF MY VERY OWN. brrrrrrrr! I quickly shoved it right between the Hesse & the Rand in the "DO NOT READ!!" section of the bookcase.

Also, I'm dismayed to see Heart of Darkness on some folk's "hated it!" list. I tore through it, utterly fascinated, and then read everything else I could find on the subject of Central Africa. I went on a major tangent, one of my favorite literary adventures, EVAR. Mopped up with The Poisonwood Bible, which was also a fine, fine book.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:03 PM on July 28, 2008


To me, War and Peace represents sort of a unification of opposites. On the one hand, Tolstoy makes the case that great masses of people, and not great men, change the course of history. At the same time, he has almost a Randian view of enlightened self interest. For example, the Muscovites all acted in their own best interest when fleeing Moscow. However, by pursuing their own best interests, they performed the most patriotic act possible - refusing to give Napoleon a meaningful victory.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:21 PM on July 28, 2008


Two series I read to completion-at-the-time, and just..wish I'd stopped.


Terry Goodkind's "The Sword Of Truth" series. It was like, the most transparent Ayn Rand worshipping fantasy novel ever. There was the always right, magically endowed superhero of a man that could do everything ever perfect. It was like 8 books long, but some highlights:

* Hero comes into world, has innate grasp of both sides of magic. Most easily described as "Cut" and "Paste".

* Hero attacks town. Said town has Randian general of defense, corrupt, beauracracy god-emperor. god-emperor has been using general of defense's wife. general of defense intentionally gets death syphillis, gives to wife, kills god-emperor, self, wife, visiting dignitaries.

* Hero finds himself in what might as well be a concentration camp. It turns out that, in addition to everything else, he is a magnificent sculptor of marble. He is offered his life by the evil ruler of Whatever (National Motto: Who Cares?) if he'll sculpt a piece that glories the horrible things the ruler does. So he does. But he makes two statues. The first is for the ruler, and it's tragically flawed. The second is for himself, and it is some Free-The-Masses-Labor-Of-Man-Saves-You bs. He unveils the first, then hits it with a hammer and it explodes, and he like pulls his out of nowhere, and everyone sees it, and it is so PURE AND AWESOME THAT IT STARTS A REBELLION.

* There is some magically imbued dominatrix (from a secret soceity of magical dominatrixes, of course) that breaks him to her will over the course of like, half a book. At the end, when she loves him and has broken him, he goes, "psyche, I locked myself away in my magic-brain, and now I'm unbroken, so you're mine now!" And she goes, "Ok." I swear, he doesn't quite collect a collection of all-the-women-that-used-to-hate-him-and-now-worship-him, but it's close.


Charles Ingrid's "The Sand Wars" or...whatever it was. It was this scifi armored infantry lunacy. Everything about the character, everyone he knew, his equipment, his universe changed literally every. single. book.

Except the matriarchal talking beaver civilization of the swamp moon of Blongle 8.
posted by enkiwa at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I come to a screeching halt at whatever page number Tom Bomadil shows up on in The Fellowship of the Ring.
posted by Cyrano at 10:14 PM on July 28, 2008


Oh god. I'm so sorry. I forgot the entire city that was constructed to be a continual magic ritual powered by it's population's worship to act as a super-duper protection buff for it's ruler.

It's like some dungeon master tried to make the most insanely powerful construct to buff a single character, but stopped short of something larger than a city due to...artistic integrity?
posted by enkiwa at 10:43 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Embarrassed to have read: Heinlein, The Number Of The Beast

Embarrassed not to have read: actually, anything by Jane Austen. I keep meaning to, but something just gets in the way. Every time.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 10:54 PM on July 28, 2008


I kind of like that idea. Does that make me a bad person?
posted by Artw at 10:54 PM on July 28, 2008


Loved Heart of Darkness. I re-read it every couple of years. Go back to your white sepulcher lives, haters.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? I'm pretty sure it caused more psychic damage than not being able to sleep for a week after a botched ACL surgery.
posted by squared at 10:58 PM on July 28, 2008


Embarrassed to have given up on Crime and Punishment. Not embarrassed enough to give it another go just now, but still, there's a twinge.

No regret on putting down Great Gatsby last year. It was ho hum — well-written ho-hummery, but still, I've too much to do in life to put up with that.

Started twice, and have promised myself to return and finish, Moby Dick. I just need a broken leg or something to limit my activities long enough to keep that promise.

Glad to have finished Dharma Bums and Pilgrim's Progress this year.
posted by slab_lizard at 11:24 PM on July 28, 2008


I considered asking snarkily if anyone had actually read all of Pilgrim's Progress.
posted by Cranberry at 11:47 PM on July 28, 2008


For those daunted by Dostoyevsky's longer works, I recommend trying some of the shorter: The Insulted and the Humiliated and The Gambler spring to mind. These convinced me of the man's genius and I still haven't read Crime and Punishment.
posted by telstar at 2:31 AM on July 29, 2008


For what reasons, besides blunt-force insistence, are they considered required reading?

I don't know about required, but I can give you "worth reading". So here's a straight answer: because they're damned fun to read.

Seriously, do you think it's only been in the last 30 years that writers have suddenly learned how to write well? That in all the centuries before the present one, there hasn't been a single good book written? Come on... there's no way you could say that. Or do you think somehow that life today is so fundamentally different from a generation ago that those old writers hold nothing for your current experience? You do realized your grandparents fucked, right? And probably not just each other, too. Do you think your generation is the first in history to grow up in turbulent times, uncertain of where it's going, what it needs to do, and how it can go about doing it? Take your lightsabres and trade them for metal ones... cars for horses... global warming for hordes of Huns... AIDS for TB... switch all the trappings of modern society for more primitive ones. Doesn't matter. Look at what doesn't change - the need for love, to be respected, to find one's way in the world, greed, sex, pride, and anger. All those things are eternal, and they're the core of every damned good book ever written.

By limiting yourself just to recent books, you're missing out on a ton of wickedly good reading material. Stuff that's racy, that's violent, that's frightening, that's pulse-pounding, that's hilarious... stuff that's risen above the rest of the crap written back then to remain relevant, worthy, and enjoyable because the subject is timeless and the writing so damned good. It's one thing to say you understand the meaning of "tilting at windmills", and quite another to actually read Quixote's words and feel yourself watching this fragile old man, with his lost grip on reality, fearful for the beating he receives yet still hoping he defeats that giant. And having read Quixote, you appreciate Rostand's Bergerac all the more ("Or upward—to the stars!"), and from there can see elements of that character echoing down to a huge variety of entertainments today - music, art, plays, television, movies, books, comics - satirized, plagiarized, eulogized, and exalted. Those later works don't replace the earlier ones... they reinforce it and enlighten it. You get to see it in different ways, from different perspectives. The heroes of one generation can be the villains of the next, and the fools of a third, before returning to heroic status.

Is it all good? Of course not. And just because others say it's good (and it objectively IS good), that doesn't mean you'll enjoy it, as evidenced from the conversation so far. I think virtually every book mentioned so far has received praise and scorn. I doubt there's a book out there anyone could recommend that you're guaranteed to enjoy. But if you try a couple, you'll find them. They'll lead you on to others, I'm sure.

And until you try them, you remain ignorant. Not in the insulting sense of the word, but the root of it - simply lacking. Missing out on a ton of good stuff, for no other reason but your unwillingness to consider that something written centuries ago could be worth reading today. Don Quixote isn't "required reading" because it was written in 1605. It isn't "required reading" because people in 1605 thought it was fun to read. But the simple fact that people in 1665, 1738, 1792, 1829, 1881, 1909, 1942, 1967, 1984, 2001, and 2005 all thought it was fun to read kinda, sorta suggests that maybe, possibly, there's an off-chance that someone, somewhere, in 2008 or 2050 or 4139 might pick it up and find it fun, too. Might even consider it the best book they've ever read, and change their life. That someone might be you. Or you might find it boring (especially the pastoral bits), and pick up "1984" instead. Who knows what will strike your imagination best?

And once you've found a "classic" you like, it's as if you've struck a thick vein of gold, and you realize the mine you're in is immense. Sure, you'll have to bore through some bits that aren't so good, but you'll be rewarded by tons of good stuff. Isn't that worth cracking open the spine of a couple books that millions of people have loved?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:23 AM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't find myself understanding people who purchase books and then don't read them. I don't buy a book I don't plan on reading. True, there are a small number that I have not finished - but these are story collections, not novels (anyone who managed to finish slogging their way through "Sylvie and Bruno" please come forward and claim your prize: That's not the Lewis Carroll for which I purchased the book!)

I still try to read them, though. Even the Poe collection I am currently reading. If you want to save yourself some time, just read his famous stories, and if anyone asks about the remainder murmur something about mesmerism, animal magnetism and end by saying "it was a real shame that the female character died so young". I mean, sure, there are a lot of really interesting stories there, but so many of them are just plain formulaic. The literature of the time is overly verbose, pages upon pages of rambling when a simple concise sentence would have sufficed (which is why I like Hemingway so much, I guess - his brevity is refreshing in comparison). Poe makes good bedtime reading, because the stories that don't immediately grab me put me right to sleep with the long-windedness.

On the other hand, The Count of Monte Cristo was also rambling and flowery, but it had such a cold, calculated deliciously drawn-out revenge it was worth reading several times.

Any books I should have read, and did not, are books that I don't currently own. Any books I read, but am not necessarily proud that I read, are probably in a box in my basement rather than on the shelf in the living room. I have a whole big box of Louis L'Amour novels down there. Appropriately enough, L'Amour himself was a voracious reader, and never felt any shame in having read the most praised of the classics followed by the basest of pulp fluff. I suppose neither should I, nor should anyone. It's OK to like Great Literature, but there's nothing wrong with guilty pleasure reading either.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:51 AM on July 29, 2008


I'm sorry to see that so many people haven't read/do not intend to read Austen because it is too girly; it's like being told "Ugh, I would never eat chocolate because it looks repulsive."

I'm embarrassed by my inability to get past Volume 1 of Remembrance of Things Past. And when I say I "read" Swann's Way I mean I read the first few chapters and then did a lot of skimming. It's a shame because so many people I admire have assured me it is worth the effort. But I fail.

It also shames me to admit that I haven't read/studied/seen about a third of Shakespeare's oeuvre. What I have studied is so utterly rewarding that I am constantly reminding myself to make the time. But alas! My copy of Hons and Rebels beckons invitingly and I find myself putting the Bard back on the shelf. For now.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:31 AM on July 29, 2008


I don't find myself understanding people who purchase books and then don't read them.

"The buying of more books than one can possibly read is the soul's way of aspiring towards infinity."
posted by signal at 7:31 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Books I've read that I'm embarassed to have read and/or frustrated by the time I wasted on it:

- The first ten pages of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, as mentioned above. Even those ten pages were a waste. Ugh.

- Sort of embarassed for the Raymond Feist series, but it a couple books were interesting.

- Wuthering Heights. It dragged on and on and on, and I hated every moment of it. Everyone said it was wonderful, so I kept hoping for improvement.

- That one Heinlein book I read; I can't even remember the name.

- the Wheel of Time series books 6 through 11. I knew it sucked, but I just kept going.

- The Firm and half of Tort by Grisham. I have no excuse.

Books that I'm embarassed I have not read:

- The Fellowship of the Ring

- anything by Jane Austen

- Catcher in the Rye

- Catch-22


So disappointing.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 7:40 AM on July 29, 2008


anyone who managed to finish slogging their way through "Sylvie and Bruno" please come forward and claim your prize

What do I win? A dead mouse that I can "charmingly" use to measure things with?

S&B and its sequel are fascinatingly flawed books. They don't totally deserve the bad rap they get, but I certainly can't wholeheartedly recommend them either.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:05 AM on July 29, 2008


Books not read but owned and even attempted: Mencken's "The American Language" (with supplements!) and Gibbon's full three-volume "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Bought them in the late 1980s and then...pffft. I made it halfway thorugh the first Mencken, but I was disappointed to find it a lot like the phone book. And the Gibbon is, well... It reminds me of all the other stuff (e.g., history) that I don't know. And starting a project only to realize you don't have the tools to complete it is disappointing. So I went and tried to read Plutarch's "Lives." Again. *facepalm* (Sorry, Lori!)

A canon of stories last a long time because they offer some truth to a lot of people. *shrug* Not the same thing to everyone -- and so a given text will be a clinker to some readers that to others seems like holy fire. I read Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" not because I necessarily agreed with him, but because I wanted to see what was his point of entry for the works he thought were most important. It's like asking your friend who knows everything about $something their opionion: the discussion itself can be as valuable as the answer.

I've been going back and reading the books I faked my way through in grades 9+ and re-reading some of the ones I hated. I once received back a college paper -- in my major, English -- that said across the top, "You failed to support your thesis. A." My best friend still brings it up years later. He's not bitter, not at all. And it turns out that a lot of these books are quite good. Perhaps I am the thing that changed.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:04 AM on July 29, 2008


Oh, wow. I'm impressed by the strength of all of you who found a way to get through Goodkind. I've tried. While looking for a blog I used to read that complied particularly horrible examples of his prose, I stumbled upon this gem: "Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action." -Terry Goodkind.

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:12 AM on July 29, 2008


Secret Life of Gravy: I can totally sympathize with your reaction to the first part of Swann's Way. I struggled through the first half a couple of times before getting past it and onto the "Swann in Love" section, which is where it really picked up for me.

Proust diddling about in his head about some impression triggered by tying his shoelaces or seeing a hair in the sink can either be maddening or entertaining, its sort of a toss-up. Where he really hits the mark for me is when he gets outside of himself, obeserving and describing others. His ability to incisively sketch a knowing portrait of another in just a few sentences (though admittedly of characteristically Proustian length and complexity) is really delightful, and it really comes to the fore as he describes Swann's obsessive romance of Odette in that portion of the book.

You see lot of the observant detail in the Combray section as well, but I felt that "Swann in Love" was a great deal more readable because most of the action took place in more of a third-person space where the author was less likely to drop in to stream of consciousness detailing of his own experience.
posted by hwestiii at 9:28 AM on July 29, 2008


I stumbled upon this gem: "Gang rape, after all, is democracy in action." -Terry Goodkind. Christ, what an asshole.

I have no opinion of Goodlkind, but for those who don't bother clicking the link: He's opposed to democracy, not in favor of gang rape.
posted by mw at 10:32 AM on July 29, 2008


Those who feel guilty on not tackling the classics might be interested to know that Jim Crace has recently added Digested Classics to his Digested Reads series in the Guardian
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:37 AM on July 29, 2008


I pretend I've read À la recherche du temps perdu and If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.
Not only do I pretend to have read these books, I list them as some of my favorites. And true, the little bit I've read I enjoyed immensely.

Truly awfully ashamed to have read:
Lying on a Couch - badly written unimaginative drivel by a prominent psychotherapist who should stay away from writing fiction;
Good in Bed - it's not even a book. It's prescriptive mush to make women feel better about being fat, single, and unhappy. The worst thing - it must have hit some inner spot because I did finish it.
posted by Shusha at 11:19 AM on July 29, 2008


Susanna Moodie - Roughing it in the Bush. Mandatory CanLit. SUCKS.
posted by K'an at 12:10 PM on July 29, 2008


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