“always surprised people are surprised that people haven’t read things.”
July 22, 2015 2:23 PM   Subscribe

From Steinbeck to Cervantes: Confessing Our Literary Gaps by Sarah Galo, Elon Green [Hazlitt] Authors, journalists, and assorted literary stalwarts tell us why they’ve missed the famous books they’ve missed.
Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates told a shocked interviewer that he hasn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird. “Half the stuff that interested me, my white peers have not read,” he said. “I am always surprised people are surprised that people haven’t read things.” The surprise is understandable. Finding out that terribly literate people have not read famous books is the nerd’s equivalent of, “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!”
Anyway, we wondered about the secret gaps harbored by our favorite writers. So we asked if they’d share them with you and give a reason—or reasons—why a particular author or text remains unread.
1. Renata Adler, author of Speedboat: Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
2. Julie Klam, author of Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without: Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Ben Yagoda, author of The B Side: Ulysses & Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
4. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You: Ulysses by James Joyce
5. ara Novic, author of Girl at War: Grapes of Wrath & East of Eden by John Steinbeck
6. Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night: Love In The Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
7. Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
8. Sarai Walker, author of Dietland: Pynchon, Roth, Updike.
9. Duchess Goldblatt, author of Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies: A Love Story : Henry Bech
10.Mac McClelland, journalist and author of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story: The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon.
11. Dwight Garner, book critic for The New York Times: Bleak House by Charles Dickens
12. Mallory Ortberg, author of Texts from Jane Eyre: Anything by Leo Tolstoy, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
posted by Fizz (78 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fizz's Reading Gaps/Crimes:

1. To Kill A Mockingbird
2. Foundation Trilogy
3. Name of the Rose
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude
5. 1984
6. The Satanic Verses
7. His Dark Materials
8. Catch 22
9. Watership Down
10. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
posted by Fizz at 2:38 PM on July 22, 2015


That's the brilliant thing about literature. There are more good books out there than any one human being will ever be able to read. In fact, no reader will read even a measurable percentage of all the books in the world that are worth reading. No matter how many wonderful books you'll read, there will always be an endless feast waiting for you. Hurray for literature!
posted by Kattullus at 2:42 PM on July 22, 2015 [34 favorites]


Half these people didn't take this game seriously -- or rather, they played it very safe. Nobody is going to think badly of someone for admitting they haven't read Ulysses. I don't even have words for people who say their biggest gaps are Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon or Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (neither of which I've ever heard of).

Where are the real gaps? Where are the people admitting they've never read a single play of Shakespeare?
posted by crazy with stars at 2:47 PM on July 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't love this exercise, even though I understand it's being done in a pretty good spirit. It reinforces the kind of annoying prescriptivism I would like to see the end of. Or, what kattullus said.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:49 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Never made it all the way through 9622.
posted by gwint at 2:50 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


What's funny about this to me is that every book listed as being skipped is fiction! No one says they have an "Aristotle-shaped hole" in their literacy, or only read the first half of Herodotus.

I don't have a problem with this, I just think it's interesting. Probably if you asked a bunch of non-fiction authors about their reading gaps, they'd list towards their own genre as well.

My biggest gaps are probably a few classic American novels - To Kill a Mockingbird, The Red Badge of Courage, Catcher in the Rye, Steinbeck, and all those. Then, lots of foreign classics and much of the Chinese and Indian classics. Pretty much everything except a heaping handful of the Western canon, really.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Mallory Ortberg: I absolutely plan on continuing to pretend to have read The Left Hand of Darkness on the Internet.

I've actually read that one, but I will continue to pretend to have TONS of stuff on the Internet, perhaps not loudly but certainly through whatever you want to call the lie by omission that is staying silence.

That said, I've rarely seen a list like this where I think people are "missing out" even when the answers surprise me or when I think people are missing out on a good book. Like Kattullus said, hooray for literature.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:56 PM on July 22, 2015


Half these people didn't take this game seriously -- or rather, they played it very safe.

Yeah, when David Lodge created this game ("Humiliation") he at least took pains to specify that the winner would be the person whose unread book was the most famous, and the most obligatory reading in their field of study. Perhaps it always was the case, but at any rate now it's almost incontrovertible that the game is basically so low-stakes as to be meaningless for anyone but humanities academics and professed subject-field experts to play. There's nothing really confessional at stake in these "confessions," because the sense of a common cultural obligation to have read any one specific thing has pretty well died out (and yes, it's very likely for the best) in even most of the most well-read circles in the culture at large. I'm trying to think what book I'd think less of Renata Adler or Dwight Garner or Mallory Ortberg for not having read and there pretty much isn't one; the sense of potential embarrassment just isn't there in the first place for writers or critics at large. It's not like Adler previously avowed great expertise in the Spanish Golden Age and so this is some great revelation.
posted by RogerB at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


I seem to recall an anecdote from some fictional work (that I haven't read, obvs) that involves some kind of party where a bunch of academics have gathered. They start to play the "What famous thing have you not read?" game. It starts out pretty safe, with each person naming important but difficult to obtain works, then moving on to imposing or difficult to read books. Finally, the narrator or protagonist shuts the game down by naming Macbeth.
posted by mhum at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2015


RogerB: "Yeah, when David Lodge created this game ("Humiliation") he at least took pains to specify that the winner would be the person whose unread book was the most famous"

Ah ha. That's exactly what I was thinking of. And the game-ender wasn't Macbeth, it was Hamlet.
posted by mhum at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Inferno was tough but Purgatorio and Paradiso? Ugh I think I'd rather experience it than read it. I nearly felt that way about Inferno.
posted by GuyZero at 3:08 PM on July 22, 2015


I grew up in a pretty dinky town with a terrible public library and fairly dismal bookstores, but ended up reading a big chunk of the Western canon as a kid and a teen because they were "classics" and could be found on just about every bookshelf I raided. But can I really say that I've read those books if all that I remember are the plots and little else?

No matter how many wonderful books you'll read, there will always be an endless feast waiting for you.

Oh god, this stresses me out SO much and has, on more than one occasion, resulted in a reading paralysis because I was overwhelmed by the number of books I had not read but wanted to read.
posted by peripathetic at 3:09 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sunk-cost fallacy be damned, I totally finished Bleak House since the last time this came up! In hindsight I should have started with The Pickwick Papers, which nudged Dickens from "bucket list" to "writer I might possibly consider reading again for pleasure." Currently I'm not reading Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow.
posted by Lorin at 3:10 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


when David Lodge created this game ("Humiliation") he at least took pains to specify that the winner would be the person whose unread book was the most famous, and the most obligatory reading in their field of study.

I've got a winner. A dear, dear friend of mine admitted last year after he'd had a few that he'd never read On the Origin of the Species etc.

He's a paleontologist.
posted by barchan at 3:12 PM on July 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


Many years ago, when I was young, I admitted to a dear friend that I had never read anything by Wallace Stegner. The next day, she brought me a few of his books, and told me that she was so envious that I got to experience them for the first time, while she had to be content with re-reading them.

I vacillate between believing that reading is not any type of competition and doing things like committing to reading Ulysses this summer (two chapters to go, then I will read a book to figure out what I just read).
posted by dubwisened at 3:17 PM on July 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think a more interesting version would be:

Pick one book from the list of books that you've always intended to read - say, for a period of years. Why have you always intended to read it? Why have you never gotten around to it? Why have you picked it over the other books on the list?

Now read it.

I think we would see some very safe choices (pieces from the literary "canon"), but I would be tickled to see people pick something pulp.

And yeah, the lack of nonfiction is interesting. With a few exceptions (often memoirs or exposés), nonfiction has never really had the same cultural cachet. The well-educated, well-rounded reader likes literary fiction, not A Brief History of Time or From Dawn to Decadence. Once upon a time, an education in the classics would mean you'd have read some Roman or Greek histories, probably, but we no longer see the classics as a compulsory part of being well-read.

(I just started the Landmark Herodotus, and it really is a beautiful volume. So if anyone reads BlackLeotardFront's comment and says, "that's my one book," it's worth checking out.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:19 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is a more interesting exercise for me to play with movies since they require such a vastly different investment of time. And although it's meaningless, it's always interesting to me to talk to someone else who really enjoys movies and tell them I've never seen Spartacus, or learn from them that they've never seen, I don't know, The Godfather.

But books? I don't represent myself as widely read the way I might represent myself as having seen many movies, but you could fill warehouses with the vast number of Great Books I've never cracked.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:21 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


The person who said Hunger Games is an asshole. That's not admitting to something embarrassing. That's bragging about how you're the kind of person who doesn't read popular YA. You lose, Julie Klam, whoever you may be.

Anyway, whenever we play this game, everyone else is like "I am so embarrassed that I have never read Finnegan's Wake," and I roll my eyes, because I think I've only ever met two people who actually have read Finnegan's Wake. I have some actual, real, embarrassing things that I've never read. I'm pretty sure I have never read Wuthering Heights. (I feel like I've read it, because I am familiar with Heathcliff being all Heathcliff-y on the moors, but I think that's just from random pop culture.) I have never read or seen a production of Hamlet or Midsummer Night's Dream. I should probably just sit down and read the embarrassing Shakespeare plays that I haven't read so I can stop being embarrassed about it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:37 PM on July 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


Where are the people admitting they've never read a single play of Shakespeare?

Hello.

I started one in high school because it was a requirement, but never finished it and never got anything out of it. I find plays, by any author, not really suitable for reading for the same reason reading the source code to a video game isn't terribly useful (except to those who want to make them).

Shakespeare is particularly bad because of the academic ego-trips surrounding some of the inscrutable language. I find most of his plays hard to watch as performances too for that reason... I have no idea what the hell is going on a lot of the time.

tell them I've never seen Spartacus, or learn from them that they've never seen, I don't know, The Godfather.

Never seen either of these. They just sound super-tedious and do not interest me.
posted by smidgen at 3:38 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


But can I really say that I've read those books if all that I remember are the plots and little else?

I don't see why not -- you didn't study them, which is a very different activity.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:40 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

I could never get through Tolkien past the Hobbit. Got to the bit where the Hobbits meetup with Aragorn, Aragon, whatever his name is, in The Fellowship of the Ring and then never touched the books again.

Although I really enjoy what I've read, and find it very clever and basically a masterpiece, from the bits I've read, I've never been able to complete the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, but this would be clearly a lazy choice as this is common (as is getting though Quixote, welcome to the club). One of my English professors claimed he got through Shandy, but maybe had to say that because he was the editor of the particular Penguin Classic I attempted to read.
posted by juiceCake at 3:41 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Eh, my guess is that for at least some of these folks the admitted hole is one that they are conscious of on a semi-consistent basis. Like, I was embarrassed (to myself) for a while that I hadn't seen Kiss Me Deadly, but that isn't exactly Star Wars in terms of cultural literacy. But it felt like a big gap at the time.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:41 PM on July 22, 2015


I was talking about this topic with someone recently -- I went through a period of a few years of catching myself up on canonical and non-canonical Significant Books of the Past That I've Missed Reading a while back.

Some authors and titles were revelatory and quickly became all-time favorites (e.g. Wuthering Heights, Muriel Spark, utterly anything by Virginia Woolf). Others were surprising for the fascinating aspects people don't talk about (e.g. waves fondly at Gulliver's Travels, shakes fist at Robinson Crusoe). Still others were a horrible slog1 despite my enjoying the process, or rather my feeling as if the writing was good or important enough to be worth the effort.

1) For these, I found it very helpful to keep on hand a modern book of some sort so I could flush the superfluous prolixity and periphrastic pleonasm out of my brain's nooks and crannies with a bit of unadorned writing.
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:55 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was the only book I just stopped reading (no skimming, no skipping to the end) as an English major in college. I came close to not finishing Moby Dick, but then I had a nightmare where Captain Ahab was chasing me around the deck of the Pequod trying to beat me with a stick. I took that as a sign to finish the book.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:00 PM on July 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'm with Coates here - there's a lotta fuckin' books out there! I get that it's different when the person in question is a person of letters but still. I've only got three or four from the list. I don't think I know anyone who's actually read Don Quixote.
posted by atoxyl at 4:07 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

James Salter, Light Years. You can't find a writer on the internet who won't gush about Salter's prose (especially after he died last month), but after 100 pages or so I nearly threw the book across the room. I'm still willing to give A Sport and a Pastime a shot, because at least it's short. (I'd like to see someone one-up me with, say, Lolita.)
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 4:09 PM on July 22, 2015


Mockingbird would generally be a surprising one because it's so widely assigned but it's kind of a "teach white kids about racism" book so it also makes perfect sense that TNC was never interested.
posted by atoxyl at 4:10 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've never read anything by Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde, or C.S. Lewis. And probably plenty of others I can't remember.

Sometimes going into bookstores and libraries actually fills me with a weird kind of anxiety, knowing how many books there are and how few of them I will ever read...anybody else ever get that?
posted by zchyrs at 4:19 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've never read any Shakespeare plays, other than having had to read Julius Caesar in high school in 1985. But I thought plays were for watchin', not readin'. And I watch them live, and movie adaptations of them, whenever I get the chance. I even liked Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Baz Lurman's Romeo + Juliet.

I've never read anything by James Joyce.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:23 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I could name plenty of books from "the canon" that I haven't read, but it strikes me that none of that is as potentially shocking as this fact: I am, to my knowledge, the only American woman who was a teenager in the 1980's who never read Judy Blume's book Forever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:33 PM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


whenever we play this game, everyone else is like "I am so embarrassed that I have never read Finnegan's Wake," and I roll my eyes, because I think I've only ever met two people who actually have read Finnegan's Wake.

Agreed. I've never felt the slightest obligation to read it. It sounds dreadful, honestly.
posted by thelonius at 4:34 PM on July 22, 2015


Ulysses? Even the cartoon got boring.

Worth noting that until last year pretty much everyone in the UK read Mockingbird at school. The government had stopped that in the last year, and Of Mice and Men is also out, both for being too foreign (and very much not because of mentioning poor people). The culprit was Michael Gove, who Mefites may recall has the look of a plucked ballbag.
posted by biffa at 4:41 PM on July 22, 2015 [7 favorites]


I also never read Forever! I actually didn't like Judy Blume that much. Sorry Judy Blume. You seem like a nice lady! If it makes you feel better, I also didn't like Beverly Cleary that much, and she also seems like a nice lady!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:42 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


We say "ballsack" on this side of the pond!
posted by thelonius at 4:42 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


It strikes me as a little weird that British people read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, to be honest. I understand its appeal to white Americans, but it's hardly literature for the ages. I think maybe it gets read in school because it feels like an important, grown-up book but is written at a level that is accessible to 12-year-olds? I sort of expect Americans to have read Mockingbird, because it's so widely taught in school, but I certainly wouldn't be shocked that anyone hadn't read it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:46 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. I tried once or twice but I think I missed the teenage angsty years that I need to be in order to properly appreciate that novel. It just felt like so much whining and complaining.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac also is a book I keep on trying to read but cannot get through. It feels so tedious and over-hyped. I studied the Beats during undergrad and I appreciate their contributions to the larger literary community but it just doesn't hit me the way it hits so many other people.
posted by Fizz at 4:46 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


On the Road, good one. Pynchon's praise of Kerouac, like William Gass's of Henry James, makes me want to give him a fair shake but I'm just NOT feelin' it. And the thought of reading the complete works of Henry James (New Yorker) gives me a mild panic attack.
posted by Lorin at 5:09 PM on July 22, 2015


Mallory Ortberg's reason for not reading Tolstoy struck me as the truest about how we form lists of books we're somehow actively ... not reading? Like, nobody needs to make an excuse for not reading anything ever. Oh, my brother recommended this to me? Obviously I'm not gonna read that. I bought a copy of this once and it had weird glossy paper. Next! Why would I read anything else by Cormac McCarthy, I enjoyed Blood Meridian TOO MUCH. And so on.
posted by Lorin at 5:14 PM on July 22, 2015


Catch-22, which is physically on my to-read pile but I still haven't
King Lear, and I don't really even know the plot. I'm pretty well-Shakespeare-read, but somehow not Lear.
James Joyce, at all
Dickens, except when forced. Bleak House is on my kindle, waiting to prove me wrong, but I keep avoiding it. Also I read a biography of Dickens's wife, learned what a mega-douche he was, and it's put me off reading him even more. Which is dumb AND YET.

Kutsuwamushi: "Pick one book from the list of books that you've always intended to read - say, for a period of years. Why have you always intended to read it? Why have you never gotten around to it? Why have you picked it over the other books on the list?"

Picture of Dorian Grey, not really sure why I never got around to it, I read it, and DUUUUUUUUUUDE that was some creepy-ass shit! Totally worth reading!

I only read "Forever" last year when my book club did a "favorite books of your childhood" series of reads; I didn't read "Mockingbird" until law school and I just don't know how that happened! Did "Moby Dick" last year, partly for the bragging rights, but also it turned out to be HUGELY ENTERTAINING!

ArbitraryAndCapricious: "It strikes me as a little weird that British people read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, to be honest. I understand its appeal to white Americans, but it's hardly literature for the ages."

I think other English-speaking countries under-read American literature, and I'm always so delighted when people discover Mark Twain as an adult, so I'm always particularly interested to ask people from other countries, what is 100% always on the "high school" curriculum in your country as the must-not-miss national literature? And then I read those things if I can find them in translation. Sometimes they're fascinating and beautiful, sometimes they're ... there. But I always feel like I learn something interesting about my friends and their cultures.

I've never read "Democracy in America" straight through which I know is shocking given how much I love America and people talking about Americans. I also haven't read "The Jungle" except in excerpts, which, again, surprising, given my incessant nattering about Chicago and Chicago-related arts.

Mostly when I see lists that are like "Everyone must read these classic books before they die!" I go and read the ones on it I haven't read yet. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're not, but I chug away at them pretty steadily.

I'm sure the most important book that most people haven't "actually read" is the Bible as a whole ... most people skip the boring/repetitive/particularly-ancient-in-form bits.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:18 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


crazy with stars, I pretty much agree with you, but maybe for different reasons. For example, I know that The Noonday Demon is a great book about depression and if someone is writing a book that features PTSD prominently, maybe it was needed, but damn I doubt it rises to the level of I-hesitate-to-admit-I've-read-it.

The Well of Loneliness, however, was "required reading" for every lesbian at least through the late 70s and presumably at least a bit further because it was one of the first, if not the first, books written by a lesbian specifically and explicitly about lesbians. So I get that reference.

Me, I'm more like, Don Quixote? Yawn, so what, you really only need to have read one chapter to get it. Or, Ulysses? Yeah, bummer but so few have really read it that, well, yawn.

And Hunger Games? She's just trying to make readers such as myself like her more. That's not a confession, that's a humblebrag.
posted by janey47 at 5:19 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I never finished Gormenghast (found it unberably mopey) and Heart of Darkness. For the latter, I was already out of college, and halfway through the book, I simply thought I'd be better off just reading King Leopold's Ghost. I rather think there are some books that are ideally read sooner rather than later--Heart of Darkness was required reading for my younger siblings in high school and they recommended it to me very enthusiastically. I missed the Ayn Rand boat in my youth, and with every passing year, I find that I'm less inclined to read her.
posted by peripathetic at 5:20 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Henry James is really interesting. I have read the short stories, and one or two of the novels, but I have read everything his siblings, and a large chunk of the work about his father. Also studying 19th century queer Anglo-Catholicism, I have read dozens and dozens of books about him, including novels about him. I think that I am at the point where I know so much about him and his texts--that reading the secondary was more valuable than reading the primary, and also--that you don't need to read the primary to have opinons about it. It's okay to read around a text, or to find the tissue of analysis more interesting or more important than the actual books themselves. Also, it must be remembered that we read for all sorts of reasons, and the balance will always be a bit skewed--I have read deeply in 70s SF but I have never read the Asimov robot novels, my crime reading is stuck b/w 1940 and 1970, as for Japanese works in translation, I have read before 1200 and after 1970. I also think that low work tells us alot about a culture, perhaps more than canonical novels. I feel more shame of never having read song of the loon than I do for not having read Christopher Bram.
posted by PinkMoose at 5:29 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I used to have a habit of buying any random thing that caught my eye at a book shop if it was a good price and looked interesting. The oldest such volume currently on my bookshelf that I have never even tried to read, and therefore the one I now feel slightly bad about is Three Dimensional Electron Microscopy of Macromolecular Assemblies, by Joachim Frank.

It has nothing whatsoever to do with any field of study or activity I've ever been involved in, and tomorrow I expect to completely forget about it for at least another few years.
posted by sfenders at 5:30 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Heart of Darkness is a surprising one to start without finishing because it's so short.
posted by atoxyl at 5:31 PM on July 22, 2015


I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
-Mark Twain
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:35 PM on July 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


(I just started the Landmark Herodotus,...

Oddly, I have never read Herodotus, despite having managed Thucydides many years ago. Which I think shows the better measure of "gaps": not books we've simply not read, but books we might have been expected to read given the ones we already have. Almost like reading Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter but not 1984.

Some great databased algorithm could take all our inputs on what we've read and then point out our most scandalous gaps. Like Amazon recommending you a book but with more shaming and disapproval.
posted by Thing at 5:38 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


9. Watership Down

Me neither, but that's okay as I watched the movie and that gave me enough nightmares to cover a couple of years reading time.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:59 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Every book listed as being skipped is nonfiction...

Almost every book: Noonday Demon, an excellent work of nonfiction, is represented.

(English major here; read enough of Moby Dick to write an exceedingly half-assed paper about it. Will probably just have to start over with the damn thing. Couldn't get into Harry Potter after the first one. I'm no genre snob -- I've gone on major summertime Stephen King binges. Rowling just didn't reel me in.)
posted by virago at 6:05 PM on July 22, 2015


My wife and I watched the recent PBS doc on Harper Lee. At the end, she asked if I had ever read Mockingbird. I admitted that, no, I hadn't. It had never been assigned in any class. Same with her. Never assigned.

Though I'm a big sci-if reader, I've not read Dune. I have a couple of friends who would have my neck if they heard me admit that.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:12 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Screw you Mark Twain; Paradise Lost is a hell of a read.
posted by kokaku at 6:20 PM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Proust. I have tried oh so many times being assured that it is absolutely wonderful. I think I ffrog marched my way through the first volume but I can't tell you what it is about.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:22 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


FWIW - I've read most of the books listed (Hunger Games - wtf is that?). However, I have never read anything by these authors listed as saying what they haven't read. I've never even heard of them. Incidentally, a book critic who hasn't read Bleak House, wow, poor guy. I wish I hadn't read it because then I could have the pleasure of reading it the first time.
posted by charlesminus at 6:44 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I guess I have this feeling of guilt and shame about not reading literary fiction or classics of any kind. I keep trying to read important books: I've read the first chapter of a few Jane Austen novels, I forced my way through One Hundred Years of Solitude once (I have no idea what it was about), etc. But it never really sticks and I never enjoy it.

Everyone I know reads at least some highbrow books, but I seem to be stuck reading the same three or four SF and Fantasy authors. I feel like I shouldn't feel ashamed of my reading habits -- I work and I have kids, I'm too tired to have thought-provoking interactions with great literature (though I know so many parents who manage just fine), and all of it makes my head hurt -- but I do feel ashamed of it, and I find it so hard to openly admit that no, I don't read much and I especially don't read any of these great books that everyone seems so excited about. So much envy.
posted by langtonsant at 6:47 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

Last summer I decided to read War and Peace. I adore Chekhov and many doorstop works of fiction by various 19th century British authors, so this seemed like a good major classic to try.

I liked the Peace sections just fine. They were a nice blend of what I really appreciate about both Austen and Chekhov.

But the war sections were a SLOG. Sometime in the second round of the war section, there was a point where Rostov was droning on and on and on about his love of the Tsar and all I could think of was "Is it 1918 yet?"

I decided in that moment that War and Peace was not for me.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:50 PM on July 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm personally more interested (slightly of course because who really gives a fuck, really, about these things) in what people have read or attempted to, and just gave up, for whatever reason, but the more interesting reason is because they can't stand it.

People are always shocked when I tell them I couldn't make it through the Pnakotic Manuscripts. "But you love the Book of Eibon! How can you like the Book of Eibon and not the Pnakotic Manuscripts?" I just thought it was a fucking slog. Maybe it's one of those things you have to read when you're young; I bet it's great if you're fifteen years old, sitting in your bedroom daydreaming about Yith and the Great Race, but when you're a little older it's just like, why am I wasting my time on this when I could be reading Unaussprechlichen Kulten again? I mean, yeah, I have my own quirky tastes and guilty pleasures and so on--I'm sure a big part of the reason I love De Vermis Mysteriis so much is just that I read it at the right time, and it's definitely happened that I've recommended, say, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan to someone and the next time I run into them I'm like "So, how about those Seven Cryptical Books? Pretty great, right?" and they're just like, "Uh, yeah...great" out of the writhing nest of tentacles that is their face now. But it seems like everyone, including grown-ass adults, loves the Pnakotic Manuscripts, and I honestly do not get it. It's like, I can't stand The King in Yellow, but I at least understand what people like about it. I dunno, to each their own, you can have your Pnakotic Manuscripts and I'll just be in the corner reading the Aklo Notebook or the Culte des Goules or, you know, something that makes sense and is not boring as hell, thank you very much.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:18 PM on July 22, 2015 [23 favorites]


You are a giant among mad, gibbering men.
posted by GuyZero at 7:36 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I want to talk about the classics that surprised me. Tolstoy, Proust. Thought they would bore me; fell in love. Tolstoy tho you have to know where to skim.
posted by dame at 8:26 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Heart of Darkness is a surprising one to start without finishing because it's so short.

Yes, because there is no such thing as giving up a novella. No way, no how.
posted by peripathetic at 9:51 PM on July 22, 2015


Yes, because there is no such thing as giving up a novella. No way, no how.

I'm not, like accusing you of lying about it. Giving up on a novella is surprising to me because I am obsessive-compulsive.
posted by atoxyl at 10:40 PM on July 22, 2015


I absolutely loved Don Quixote , and the second book gets surreal in a really awesome way.
I tried reading a more modern translation a year later and just could not get into it. I have read a lot of old Greek and Latin books and got a lot out of them, the Satyricon is great and I am sad that so much of it is lost.
I read the Odyssey and the Iliad along with Dantes Inferno in prose, it was a slog but I got why it was important.
Some of this stuff give you a interesting background about history and can be useful in odd ways like when I played Death in "A celebrity roast for Jesus's 2000th B-day" I was ad libbing religious and historical jokes about Charon ect.

Suggested obscure read for you folks "The palm wine drinkard".
posted by boilermonster at 10:40 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I absolutely loved Don Quixote, and the second book gets surreal in a really awesome way.

It was way more fun than I expected and frankly easier to parse than some of the postmodernists. As self-conscious of my lack of formal education I can be, there's something wonderful about going into a classic completely cold. And now I know what quixotic means! I basically read it because of Borges who, incidentally, said "the reader would be able to do very well without the first part and rely upon the second, because he wouldn't lose anything, since he can find it all in the second part." If only I read that snippet beforehand; I burnt out on it halfway through the second book. I do agree one chapter is enough to get it. If that chapter is the one where Sancho Panza has diarrhea.
posted by Lorin at 11:13 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Awww, Langtonant. Don't feel bad. I like to fancy myself well read (I'm really not, I just read a lot) and I'm always buying classics because I want to be one of those people and then all I end up is reading fanfiction or trashy romances which is worse to admit to than not reading at all. I hear you on the envy but don't beat yourself up. If you looked at my shelves you might think I was one of those people you (and I) envy but it's all just a facade.

We read To Kill A Mockingbird in school (in Australia). It wasn't the 'teaching white kids about racism' that appealed to me but the way Scout was written in that she's narrating but she's not understanding everything (similiar to young Frank in Angela's Ashes). I adore the scenes in school.
posted by kitten magic at 11:43 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Reading works from the Canon is a bit like going to a Michelin starred restaurant: linen tablecloths, a hushed atmosphere and the widespread expectation that you will be every bit as amazed as all the critics were. The food may be staggeringly wonderful - but it also has a tendency to be over-rich, faddish or experimental. Fine for an occasional experience but a nightmare as an everyday diet. I feel the same way about movies: about half of the entries in the IMDB top 250 are ones which I have no wish to see again - or which I have been put off by their fanbase.

Here in Edinburgh we have a massive monument to author Walter Scott - he was wildly influential but is also a real slog to read: perhaps if I found myself convalescing in a country house with no internet or TV connection - over a rainy long weekend in November.
posted by rongorongo at 12:26 AM on July 23, 2015


Eyebrows McGee: what is 100% always on the "high school" curriculum in your country as the must-not-miss national literature?

It surprises Icelanders that I haven't read the novel Englar alheimsins (Angels of the Universe) by Einar Már Guðmundsson. It is assigned so regularly by schools that I know people who had it four times during their schooling. But somehow through the peripatetic path of my education I never had to read it. I'm sure I would like it, as I really like the other books I've read by the author. So I probably should read it. I did, however, get my fair share of the literature considered most essential by Icelandic authorities, the sagas, Romantic poetry and Halldór Laxness. I like all three, though I'd most recommend the first. My girlfriend has been reading what she can find of the sagas in Finnish translation in the last couple of years and really loving them. They're fun, fast-paced and full of scenes and characters to think about.
posted by Kattullus at 12:32 AM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]


Since To Kill a Mockingbird came up, for everyone who hasn't read it, I'll just recommend this short animated version: How To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:44 AM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is one set of authors with whom I've never connected that surprises people: American novelists who made their debuts in the 80s and 90s. The paradigmatic novelist of that set who by all measures I should like, but just don't sink into, is David Foster Wallace. I really like his essays, but I bounce off his fiction like it was printed on trampolines. The same goes for most of his contemporaries. It was only this morning that I finally realized what it is about that set of writers which pulls me away from their texts.

These writers grew up during the imperial phase of television. We may be living in the form's artistic golden age, but in terms of American cultural hegemony, television's greatest dominance was in the period from 1960-1990. A lot of their books are about television, in one way or another, and I just don't find television to be intrinsically interesting. Also, computers and the internet arrived in my life while I was still a child, so I didn't experience the time when television ruled the masses. This generation of writers seems to me to be like the Greeks of the period of initial Roman domination, writing about the new conquerors so that they could make sense of them to themselves. And I just don't read Ancient Greek literature to learn about Romans, and I don't read literature to think about television.
posted by Kattullus at 2:36 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]


A not insignificant chunk of works on this list may be read simply because they are on school curricula. This is the only reason I read Mockingbird. (And any Shakespeare, but that's a different sort of thing.)

But all the Steinbeck I've read is because I had to for English class in high school, for example.

So this stuff is going to change a bit depending on schooling, locale, school board nonsense, etc. I got a fair amount of French and English Canadian Lit, too, but I'm from Manitoba. Or was for High School.

No public high school is going to put Cervantes on the curricula, of course. So I've been trying to read Quixote for literally decades.

And, as usual, Coates has a good point. All those other works by the great American white authors I read simply because they were on the shelf. Mom was a great reader, and I had access to all the popular books at the time.

But even this is going to have personal outliers. What preteen deliberately reads The Female Eunuch?

I was a weird kid, and not just because if CanLit and Manitoba.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:53 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


As an aside, I've recently decided to read only female authors for Some Amount Of Time. This is a response to the "male authors only seem to recommend male authors" nonsense that was blogworthy lately.

It's an aside because my list isn't likely to be fancy literature with a capital L, but rather speculative fiction. I mean, come on. It's July.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:57 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


A few years ago I read Middlemarch for the first time and had to take a break from all novels after that because I was convinced that it was my favorite thing ever and I spent the next year privately blogging about my favorite passages from it.

Then I got a job where some of my coworkers were doing this thing where they were reading books that they should have read in school, but didn't, because they were never required to. One of my supervisors read The Great Gatsby for the first time. Another read Wuthering Heights. I read Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace. It helped me get over whatever slump I was in at the time. Then my youngest brother, with whom I have a significant enough age gap, was assigned Lord of the Flies in his high school English class. I don't think he appreciated my text that read YOU ARE SO LUCKY! THEY NEVER DID THAT FOR ME!
posted by blixapuff at 7:11 AM on July 23, 2015 [2 favorites]


A Separate Peace

That reminds me. Wasn't there some writer who was re-reading the High School canon and blogging about it? Like maybe that was posted about here?
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on July 23, 2015


Just downloaded Bleak House. Thanks for the reminder.
posted by Splunge at 9:35 AM on July 23, 2015


I've actually found audio books to be a good way to get through some of the classics I'd missed. I listened to Dracula, Jane Eyre and Heart of Darkness before I got too ambitious and started Anna Karenina. That was a depressing way to spend months of my life, plus I had to pause in the middle cause I was getting married myself and I just couldn't handle hearing about marriages going terribly.
posted by carolr at 10:24 AM on July 23, 2015


I think it's interesting when people haven't read books that were almost certainly assigned to them in school at least once, because a lot of the time it's really easier to just read the damn book than to sit in class scared that the teacher is going to figure out that you just read the Cliff's Notes or watched the movie instead or what have you, and I wonder how they (or, ok -- how I) managed to do that for so many books.

But that's what can be annoying about school: it can force you to read a book before you're really ready to read it and then it can be spoiled for you forever. I hated Dickens until I was in my 40s -- just wasn't interested until then -- and I'm kind of annoyed that I didn't start earlier because I was put off for so long.
posted by holborne at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2015


I've had Moby Dick on by bedside table for five years. Parts of it totally enrapture me, and then I am bored silly for a couple of chapters of the detailings of whaling implements and what not. I will finish it eventually, because I've resorted to it being the only book I bring with me to airports. Funny thing is, I have red Herotodus and many other books that are denser in their structure or prose. That is why I liked this article. It makes me feel a little less silly for having such a hard time getting through books that for whatever reason, just don't suit.
posted by branravenraven at 2:44 PM on July 23, 2015


We say "ballsack" on this side of the pond!

I've never read any Balzac.
posted by chavenet at 3:39 AM on July 24, 2015


I was somewhat surprised to find out that you can receive a degree, even an advanced degree, in Biology without having read any Darwin. I mean, I know that that degree is probably more for a profession (DeVry trade-schooly, etc.) than being "purely" for knowledge, but, still ...

As for myself - whatever gene you need in order to seek out David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, or the novels of Hemingway or Mailer, I didn't get.

I have read every single published word by J.P. Donleavy, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon and WHY HAVEN'T YOU, HUH??
posted by Chitownfats at 4:13 AM on July 24, 2015


Perversely, what about those books we reread compulsively? There is already a world of books I'll never read, and I insist on reading "Soul of a New Machine" more times than I'd like to admit. I guess I just like the way he gets into their heads without doing much than relaying anecdotes and describing what should be boring computer stuff.

If I had "House" I'd probably reread that, too. I just like the prose.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:27 AM on July 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


English is my second language, but I've read many of the classics of the language, more than your average college student, it seems. I had a go at Ulysses some years ago, but gave up about halfway in. To be honest I was mostly reading it for the bragging rights, though.

I started War and Peace with some of the same motivations, but was surprised at how easy it was to read. And if you can keep track of the characters in a typical fantasy epic, you're well equipped to read War and Peace. It also helps that it's available in an excellent modern Norwegian translation.

I've read Ibsen in the original Norwegian. Maybe I can brag about that?

And like Eyebrows McGee I have a tendency to pick up these kinds of lists and go "hmmm". I did most of a SF&Fantasy one I got of Usenet years ago, and I've got an English Lit one in a drawer somewhere. I think the last work I ticked off from that was To Kill a Mockingbird, which I think is practically unknown over here.
posted by Harald74 at 5:18 AM on July 27, 2015


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