Literary Critics: "Charles Dickens, huh? Is he any good?"
March 6, 2001 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Literary Critics: "Charles Dickens, huh? Is he any good?" Slate's "Culturebox" (whatever) polls the lit-crit establishment to find out what they haven't read. Yeah, it's a Slate link, I know. Listen, shouldn't you be reading a book or something anyway?
posted by Skot (107 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I confess (and it was heartening to see one of these guys cop to it as well): I cannot read Joyce. I've tried. I've read parts of his stuff. But I cannot finish a book. A professor once told me that the only way he could finish Finnegan's Wake was by reading it aloud. Sure made me want to share a bus ride with him.
posted by Skot at 10:49 AM on March 6, 2001

It was heartening to me to see that I wasn't the only one not to have read War and Peace (though I skipped Anna Karenina as well). I just find the desire to read those books lacking.
posted by trox at 11:09 AM on March 6, 2001

Yeah, I don't have any desire to read books simply because they're widely acknowledged as "great." If I enjoy it, I'll read it, and if I find it tedious or uninteresting, then why waste my time?
posted by zempf at 11:17 AM on March 6, 2001

Why read a book when you could read my posts here?
posted by Postroad at 11:32 AM on March 6, 2001

Call me a philistine, but I never made it past the first page of Moby Dick. Most 19th century literature makes me feel as though I'm eating a house made entire of damp sponge. Except for the Russians. Love that pre-revolution Russian lit. Okay, and some Hugo, but that's it.

posted by lileks at 11:39 AM on March 6, 2001

I can envision it now.. some day in the distant future, children are receiving summer reading lists from their English teachers..

Great Expectations, Dickens
Jane Eyre, Bronte
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The MetaFilter Anthology, Postroad
posted by zempf at 11:44 AM on March 6, 2001

I can envision it now.. some day in the distant future, children are receiving summer reading lists from their English teachers..

Great Expectations, Dickens
Jane Eyre, Bronte
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The MetaFilter Anthology, Postroad
posted by zempf at 11:44 AM on March 6, 2001

Ugh. Sorry about that, my finger slipped.. maybe I should lay off the coffee.
posted by zempf at 11:44 AM on March 6, 2001

Ooh-- Lit geek confessions! My literary Waterloo is "Middlemarch". I've tried.. oh, Lord, how I've tried, on a few occasions, but eventually I just watched the made-for-television version. I'm so ashamed.
posted by jess at 11:48 AM on March 6, 2001

I confess (and it was heartening to see one of these guys cop to it as well): I cannot read Joyce. I've tried. I've read parts of his stuff. But I cannot finish a book.

Heh, I'm rereading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man now... I dunno. I love Joyce. I connected with him when I first read Portrait when I was 17. I read Ulysses all the way through. Should I get some sort of a prize? "I read two Joyce novels before I was old enough to vote, smoke, or do much else!"

A professor once told me that the only way he could finish Finnegan's Wake was by reading it aloud. Sure made me want to share a bus ride with him.

Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe, btw) is another matter. Though reading it out loud is a good idea, there are a lot of puns.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:51 AM on March 6, 2001

I think that reading contemporary fiction without having a foundation in the classics <insert own definition of "classics" here> damns you to a less meaningful experience of what is being expressed by the author. Nearly every author is a voracious reader and his/her writings will invariably draw inspiration from the existing canon of literature. I don't think that any creative work stands independent from previous works; for writing, this is especially true.

Case in point: I love the fiction of John Irving and began reading it before immersing myself in the classics. But, since he inserts references to Gunter Grass, Bronte, and Dickens, among others, I was compelled to read their works. As a result, Irving's characterization of Owen Meany (drawing heavily from Oskar Matzerath in Die Blechtrommel) became even more poignant and more subversive; this is just one example. However, Irving makes it easy for you to read his influences; other authors are not as explicit.

Readers have the perogative to label a book as sleep-inducing and ought not to be compelled to read it, despite it being labelled as "classic". Their reading experience may be lessened, but that may be a better choice than reading Anna Karenina out of obligation. But, for critics to provide "expert analysis" of literature without a rigorous literary background is foolhardy at best and disingenuous at worst.
posted by Avogadro at 11:53 AM on March 6, 2001

Being unable to read Finnegans Wake shouldn't put you off Joyce altogether. I love Joyce, but have given up and admitted I'm never going to make it through FW. I love the idea of it, and what he was trying to do - (combining all of history and as many languages as possible into one circular story) - but he did it perhaps too well.

Portrait of the Artist is probably a good introduction to him - it starts off easy and gets more complex as the character ages. Ulysses requires at least a simple guide to help clarify the plot and for some allusions lost on those not from turn-of-the-last-century Dublin, but once you get that part I find it quite fun to see what he does with it.

posted by dnash at 12:02 PM on March 6, 2001

I've tried, again and again, to make it through Tristram Shandy. I have a PhD in 18th Century British Lit, and TS was my advisor's favorite. When he died (during my studies), his widow allowed me to take any book I wished from his library. I took his tattered, heavily bookmarked and annotated copy of Tristram Shandy. I feel that I should read it, if not for its own merits, out of respect to my beloved mentor and advisor. But I read 100 pages or so, and I feel like I get it. I see the point. I get the joke. Then I grow tired of it all, and can't continue. Ah, the shame!
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:07 PM on March 6, 2001

Dubliners is the Joyce you want to start with. Especially the last story, The Dead. I know, it's not a novel, it's a story collection and therefore does not count. Fooey, I think people should read it anyway.
posted by Mekon at 12:08 PM on March 6, 2001

Exactly, Avogadro. I've had to read some utter dreck in the Grand Tour of EngLit that is the Oxford degree, and nothing gives you a better ability to identify the good stuff and know why it's good. (Then again, the kind of stuff I enjoy could be considered symptomatic, in a bad way.)

"Literary Confessions" is such an old dinner party game, I'm loathe to participate, except that it does normally provide a good index of character. Personally? I have a physical reaction to Jane Austen novels. It took me a summer's pained force-reading to plough through Emma, and even now I can't get past the first few chapters of Pride and Prejudice without wanting to throw the book against the nearest wall.

Gleeful ignorance, though? Among literary critics, nothing says "charlatan" more clearly. Better, at least, to read the generally-accepted classics than to partake in that other game of middle-class oneupmanship: the one with lines like, "you mean you haven't read Zadie Smith?"
posted by holgate at 12:11 PM on March 6, 2001

the best jane austen is mansfield park, which is a delight for me to read. my real shame is that i cannot read rushdie in any form. after a few weeks of carrying around any of his books i find that i have watched every episode of dawson's creak and roswell. no reading gets done.
posted by goneill at 12:35 PM on March 6, 2001

Shakespeare? He wrote stuf for Emma Thompson and her former hubby.
posted by Postroad at 1:05 PM on March 6, 2001

Hemmingway's Old Man And The Sea is quite possibly the worst book ever written.
posted by owillis at 1:29 PM on March 6, 2001

I tried to read Moby Dick (which, like a lot of this stuff is available online) but I could get past the first line.
posted by davidgentle at 1:41 PM on March 6, 2001

Old Man and the Sea worked well on Books on Tape. I'm trying to get through Farewell to Arms right now. I do not think I will succeed.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:54 PM on March 6, 2001

Besides Joyce, the biggie I've managed to skip is Dickens. I slogged through Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, but it was pretty miserable. No Steinbeck, either. But I read Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment twice. Does that keep me out of detention?

And I've never even heard of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which gets a couple of mentions in the article.
posted by owen at 2:02 PM on March 6, 2001

Thank you, owen, for also admitting ignorance of The Man Without Qualities, which was too much for me to add on top of my Joycean shortcomings. I read like a mother, and try to keep at least sort of on top of things, but this one slid right past my radar.
posted by Skot at 2:11 PM on March 6, 2001

Moby Dick? Read it! Ulysses? Two times! I even just squared off my obligation with 100 Years of Solitude and want to grab every person by the lapels and make every person read it.

But anyone who claims to have finished Proust must provide me with proof or I won't believe it. I, for one, just cannot sit in Marcel's little velvet room without losing consciousness.
posted by argybarg at 2:12 PM on March 6, 2001

Argybarg, there's instructions about the Proustian secret handshake and Ringabout halfway into Cities of the Plain; ask -- nay, demand -- that people demonstrate it if they say they've read Rememberance. Oh, and make sure they're packing their Li'l Orphan Madeleine Secret Decoder Ring.

posted by snarkout at 2:45 PM on March 6, 2001

Not sure what proof you want but I have read the entire thing and I liked it much better than Joyce. Tough to get through the first 50 pages but then you get pulled in. Not for everyone. But then what is. Argybarg: will a note from my Bride suffice?
posted by Postroad at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2001

And I've never even heard of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which gets a couple of mentions in the article.

Me neither, though I tend to wait until an author's been dead for 200 years before I take a look. But didn't that article come across as a bunch of oh-so-well-read litcrits saying how they so need the time to read Proust once more, but this time in the corrected French version, dahling...

posted by holgate at 3:19 PM on March 6, 2001

Nobody likes Rushdie. Some critics even condemned him to death after Satanic Verses. Am I the only one who liked it?
posted by lagado at 3:21 PM on March 6, 2001

I read Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Satanic Verses and loved them both.
Incidently, it was the Ayatollah who put the hit on him, coz the book was blasphemy or some such.
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:23 PM on March 6, 2001

the best jane austen is mansfield park

!!!?? Yikes… I love Austen and would happily flush Mansfield Park down the nearest head. The worst, absolutely the worst, main character *ever*. How anyone could prefer that to Emma, or Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion. . . *mumble*

I don't think anyone should feel bad about not having read The Man Without Qualities, since I don't think there was more than a fragment of a translation untl the last ten years or so.

I've never read much Dickens either (my grandma's Reader's Digest condensed version of David Copperfield when I was about 12, the first 100 or so horrendous pages of The Pickwick Papers) but don't feel like I've missed much.

My personal perennially failed attempt at Parnassus: Proust. I've read Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, The Satanic Verses, Middlemarch (the *best*), War and Peace (a page-turner, actually), Les Miserables (tripe), The Brothers Karamazov… but in Proust, I met my match.

Modern recommendations for 19th-century-challenged readers:
  • if you think you might like Austen or Eliot, try Margaret Drabble, who I think is their modern counterpart.
  • If you think you might like Dickens, try The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. All the exuberance of plot with none of the fat.
  • And no matter what, try the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian.
posted by rodii at 3:48 PM on March 6, 2001

Rodii, The Quincunx is frigging huge! I actually checked it out of the library last weekend, but a book of that size with elaborate faux-Victorian prose is going to take me forever to get through. I might actually have finished Gravity's Rainbow, my personal literary stumbling block, by the time I'm done with it. Good gravy!

posted by snarkout at 3:59 PM on March 6, 2001

i'm taking a british novel class in which we had to read middlemarch, but i don't know a single person in the class who finished reading it. our copies have all become doorstops or, residing in texas as we do, shooting targets. third person omniscient narrators should never say "i...", at least not ones who are "the *best*."
posted by bluishorange at 4:07 PM on March 6, 2001

snarkout, it's worth it. Come on, boy, you've faced the Avocado of Death, you can deal with a Quincunx.

bluishorange: why?
posted by rodii at 4:12 PM on March 6, 2001

But anyone who claims to have finished Proust must provide me with proof or I won't believe it

Ooh, we could have a summarizing Proust competition!
posted by dagnyscott at 4:22 PM on March 6, 2001

austen and dickens are my two favorite writers, and I've read all of both of them. I've read a lot of shakespeare. I love Paradise Lost.

had to try four times to get through moby dick; I've read dubliners and portrait but never finished ulysses or even attempted finnegans wake.

I have the faerie queen but I haven't even tried to start it yet.

I could never stand thoreau and emerson: too namby-pamby for me. never got through any george eliot, though I started one once.

I don't get the russians. I want to, I just don't. it sort of goes past me somehow.

I don't think I ever finished any chaucer.

posted by rebeccablood at 4:28 PM on March 6, 2001

oh, proust. I tried once and I couldn't get past one or two chapters.

posted by rebeccablood at 4:29 PM on March 6, 2001

crosspost madness today... i need another website to stalk.

anyway, found and blogged this earlier today---very pertinent to this discussion. True confessions of a lit-geek who hated most of what she was assigned, wrapping up with a *very* long *very* scary list of tomes that positively *must* be read in order for one to rightly claim to be "well-read".

by the looks of it i'll go to my grave blissfully ignorant ;>
posted by Sapphireblue at 4:40 PM on March 6, 2001

Dickens: read the first paragraph of a christmas carol and just didn't bother reading any further.
100 years of solitude: Didn't grab me.
The book of laughter and forgeting: also failed to grab me but it's my best friends favourite book so I ought to try some more.
Ulysses: I may read it someday. It's probably one of those books that's difficult to read on screen..
Proust: Got the first bit but I'm not sure that I feel like reading it yet.
I think a lot of this stuff (in my case) is just mental baggage I'm carrying around at the moment.
Gravity's Rainbow: A tip for the daunted: Yes it can be read (if never fully understood). If you haven't got past the end of the 1st section (there are 4) then at least head for that. It's only 170 pages and section 2 is much easier. By the time you finish that you ought to be too enmeshed in the thing to want to stop. It did take me several months to read (as compared with Cryptonomicon which took me 3 days).
[Goes away and actually reads the article in question. Has a think. Comes back with scowl on face].
Am I the only person who thinks that this whole excercise is just a tad elitist? How are average people supposed to find out about this stuff? I hope that it's only a sin to not have read a "great" book if you've actually heard of the thing. I had no idea who Joyce, or many of these other writers, were until I started searching about for stuff on the internet. How are we supposed to know?
posted by davidgentle at 4:52 PM on March 6, 2001

Augh, Rebecca, thanks for reminding me about my personal promise to never pick up The Faerie Queen again.. now I think I might have chosen Middlemarch too hastily. Rotten obscure religious allegories.. Chaucer, on the other hand, is manna from literary heaven. :)
posted by jess at 4:57 PM on March 6, 2001

Saphireblue: that babe writer you linked to was smarty pants person who had taken lots of lit classes, knew names, and then tried to come off like your basic chick at the mall chewing gum. My advice to all: read what you like, skip it if you find it dull, fret not about what others think are "musts."
This is why god made so many different kids of apples.

posted by Postroad at 5:25 PM on March 6, 2001

“This is why god made so many different kids of apples.”

And not one I like, dammit. Which is why I buy genetically enhanced apples. Yum.
posted by gleemax at 5:36 PM on March 6, 2001

I had no idea who Joyce, or many of these other writers, were until I started searching about for stuff on the internet. How are we supposed to know?

Wow, really? I hadn't heard of The Man Without Qualities, but Joyce is one of the more famous "serious" writers of the 20th century. John Huston (The Maltese Falcoln, The Man Who Would Be King) made a halfway decent adaption of his short story "The Dead".

Geh. The Faerie Queen. Up there with Wordsworth's "Prelude" on the "things I was assigned in college that I only skimmed after repeated attempts at thorough reading" list.

Rodii, that may be true, but you'll recall that the damnable Wallace Nussbaum (Napoleon of Crime) came out on top in that encounter. Come to think of it, has anyone seen Pynchon and Nussbaum in the same place at the same time?

(What I'm talking about.)
posted by snarkout at 6:07 PM on March 6, 2001

NB: the volume snarkout's link points to contains the greatest book written in my lifetime, Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel. Although I'm also partial to The Big Orange Splot, which I finished every night for weeks and weeks when my kids were littler.

posted by rodii at 6:37 PM on March 6, 2001

I'm not entirely sure why I didn't know who Joyce was. His name was kind of familiar in a background way but I didn't actually know who he was. Possibly the fact that nobody told me that I could be interested and it didn't occur to me that maybe I ought to be concerned about widening my knowledge. If I hadn't read Mr W. Gibson's Neuromancer at 16 then goodness knows what would have eventually happened to me.
posted by davidgentle at 7:20 PM on March 6, 2001

David, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake is a famously difficult novel, and even his much easier Ulysses still isn't an easy read, even with a guide. On the other hand, his short fiction and, as mentioned previously in this thread, his novel Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, are fairly approachable. If you're interested in perusing Joyce, the text of Portrait is available online; it seems to be complete, although the UI is so maddening I didn't check. So read a page or three, then head to your library if you want to read more.

Jorn at Robot Wisdom is something of a Joyce nut; there are probably resources available there.

(And shame on the person whose great confession was that s/he couldn't read the Old Testament in the original. Phht.)
posted by snarkout at 7:58 PM on March 6, 2001

(Please note that I haven't read Finnegan's Wake. I am not that cool.)
posted by snarkout at 8:10 PM on March 6, 2001

(I had the same reaction—but then it was Garry Wills, and he probably has read everything else.)

On Joyce: Portrait, though it maybe "easier" by some standard than Ulysses, is also (do I need to say "IMHO" here?) desperately dull and Stephen Dedalus is a self-pitying, self-absorbed creep. Ulysses, on the other hand, is funny as hell, and Leopold Bloom is altogether a more likeable guy. (Not that protagonist-likeability is the measure of great literature.) Can't go wrong with Dubliners, though.

You know who I have never been able to get through? Henry James. Has anyone?
posted by rodii at 8:13 PM on March 6, 2001 [1 favorite]

I've already read Portrait. i have it on my hard drive next to FW and Ulysses. I like the idea of FW but I'm not so sure about Ulysses. it seems like an excercise to me.
posted by davidgentle at 9:08 PM on March 6, 2001

Rodii, I am absolutely with you on your assessment of the relative pleasures (or pains) of Portrait, Ulysses, and Dubliners. I was profoundly put off by Portrait, but Ulysses is wonderful, though definitely difficult in parts. While knowing some of the events in Portrait helps one understand references in Ulysses, I would feel very uncomfortable recommending that someone new to Joyce should begin with Portrait. If you're like me, you could run the risk of wanting to steer clear of this Joyce bozo forever, and that would be a damned shame.

Yes, Ulysses is difficult, in that I would very much recommend getting a guide to go with it, such as The New Bloomsday Book. However, it's definitely worth it. I also think it's a book that you need to read at the right time; I approached it a couple of times and it didn't spark for me, but when it did, I assure you that reading it didn't feel like an exercise. By the way, I can attest from personal acquaintance that there are actual Joyce scholars who either haven't read Finnegans Wake in its entirety or don't feel confident enough about it to make any public statements about it.

Meanwhile, I have yet to get through Gravity's Rainbow even though I know very well I would love it if I could just muster up the required sustained attention. Perhaps over the summer. For some reason I couldn't get myself to read very far in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo or anything by Milan Kundera. Oh well, perhaps the time will come.

Middlemarch, on the other hand, is really great--I swear--though slow to get going. It's so intriguingly and delightfully fair-minded. But if you feel great distress when confronted with leisurely 19th century prose, with all its attention to social detail, I suppose you might never like it.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:13 PM on March 6, 2001

Rodii, are you counting James' "The Turn of the Screw", one of the spookier stories I've read?

Oh, Kundera... There's someone I've never even bothered with. (Unlike Rushdie -- I tried Midnight's Children a couple of time, and lost interest.)
posted by snarkout at 9:52 PM on March 6, 2001

It all reminds me of that wonderful game from the David Lodge book 'Trading Places,' where people have to embarrass themselves by naming a book they've not read they think everyone else has. The person whose book has been read by the most people in the room (excluding himself, of course) wins.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:59 PM on March 6, 2001

This seems like a good time to plug Project Gutenberg. I'm sure most of ya'll know about it, but for the uninitiated, it's a large collection of classic and public domain works, the full texts of which are available online. Lotsa good lit-geek stuff. (Also a whole lot of mind-numbingly dull crap no one will ever read again, but, hey....)
posted by Optamystic at 10:51 PM on March 6, 2001

Speaking of James: I laughed my ass off when Raza Syed, who used to publish, saw this photo of my brother Jeremy and told me it looked like a film still from "a Partridge Family production of The Turn of the Screw". So funny. Geek-lit humor is the best.

I love Portrait. I've read the first three pages of Ulysses about twenty-five times, but I'm confident that I'll get through it eventually. Then I'm going to learn six languages and read Finnegeans Wake from cover to cover, backwards.

I have a degree in English from a big old University, but I have never read Middlemarch, and I refuse to read it on principle, whatever that principle might be. Ditto for the Bronte sisters. I've actually only read a few chapters of Moby Dick, though I did like the parts I read. I skimmed through Paradise Lost. I'm not sure if I ever actually read any Austen. I think Charles Dickens should have been banished to a tower room, and then guillotined in Two or Three Cities, for what he did to English Literature. Better yet, let's drag him around from the back of a cart in very slow, long, deliberate grandiose movements that never seem to get on with it. We'll kill him over the course of several installments.

Better yet: put Dickens, Wordsworth, James Fenimore Cooper, Thoreau, Robert Frost, Hemingway, and Ann Raynd into a big pit and let them claw each other to death. Meanwhile, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, Swift, Twain, Whitman, Faulkner, Hughes, Warren, Steinbeck, Wright, and Bradbury will be standing on the edge of the pit, pointing and laughing. I'll be near them, trying to decide whether or not to push in Fitzgerald.

Has anyone read Charles Brockden Brown's Weiland? It was the first American Novel, written in the late 1790s, and it's an incredible suspense story narrated by a woman. Few people I meet have heard of the book, let alone read it. It might be my favorite novel, ever. Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker is up there, too.

Lastly, I've just examined my bookshelf, and it appears that I own Cliff's Notes for Last of the Mohicans, The House of Seven Gables, and Moby Dick. So much for my literary credibility. You may disregard my opinions accordingly.
posted by sixfoot6 at 11:15 PM on March 6, 2001

I loved Portrait and Dubliners. I've had a hell of a time with Ulysses though. I've read the first hundred pages three or four times and gotten tired of it every time. I can see he's getting to something interesting, but I just don't have the patience to read four pages about a guy cooking a pork chop. Same feelings about Crime and Punishment. It was almost enough to turn me off of Russian lit. altogether until a friend suggested The Master and Margarita .

Snark is definitely right about Turn of the Screw. Spooky stuff. My second favorite scary book behind The Haunting of Hill House, which was unfortunately turned into a terrrrrible movie.

The Satanic Verses is on the shelf off books I've started and hope to finish, along with Johnny Got His Gun and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.

My own personal literary nemesis is Dickens. I can't stand the guy. I was forced to read Great Expectations in high school, and I read about four pages of Tale of Two Cities.
posted by krakedhalo at 12:20 AM on March 7, 2001

I have an aversion to many of the 19th century "classics" that get rammed down people's throats at school.

Dickens I have never had much time for, though I've ploughed through a couple of novels. The Brontes? Never. George Eliot? Only The Mill On The Floss.

Joyce is best read when slightly drunk. In Portrait you're not supposed to like Dedalus, I don't think. He's an oick of the first order. Bloom in Ulysses is much more interesting.

Rushdie an invigorating read once you get past the initial block. He's got everything, although I think he relies too much on old tricks these days.

I was a voracious reader as a teenager, and hit the books hard at University - but even then you could get away with not reading much.
posted by blastboy at 1:45 AM on March 7, 2001

Dickens, Wordsworth, James Fenimore Cooper, Thoreau, Robert Frost, Hemingway, and Ann Raynd [sic] into a big pit and let them claw each other to death.

See, it's this American compulsion to cite Ayn Rand as a novelist and a philosopher, when she's neither.

There's a list worth making of books that you'd think would be daunting, but are actually good bedtime reads. And lots of eighteenth-century types fit the bill: Swift, for sure; Fielding, if you take it a couple of chapters at a time to absorb the mood; even a bit of Fanny Burney or Smollett. I think it's something to do with the genre being barely out of nappies: on the one hand, everything's experimental, but nothing's deliberately obscurantist. It's all very readerly.

(Finally: The Golden Bowl creeps out in the US next month. Now that's an unfilmable novel. And a barely-readable one, that I can't help admiring while never ever wanting to look at again.)
posted by holgate at 3:31 AM on March 7, 2001

Oh, look, it's a bragging thread. Here are my boasts and confessions:

Can't stick:
• Joyce - except for in the shorter tales, he bores me. FW is a hypertedious game for tedious text twisters.
• Faulkner - feh
• Steinbeck
• anything 'Beat'
• science fiction and fantasy - not since I was a kid, anyway
• politics masquerading as fiction

Can't be bothered, too lazy, maybe some day, maybe not:
• Proust
• Tolstoy
• Orwell
• George Eliot
• Thackeray - Vanity Fair
• Kafka
• Mann
• Milton - Paradise Lost - I keep picking it up and dropping it
• Swift - Gulliver's Travels

But like:
• Dickens - Pickwick Papers, Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House
• Austen - Pride and Prejudice
• Melville - MD and the short stories or novellas or whatever they are
• Chaucer - CT is wonderful, funny
• anonymous - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - fabulous
• Shakespeare - the best ones, about a dozen or so plays, plus the sonnets and his other poetry
• Turgenev - something like 'Tales from a Hunter's Album'?
• Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment, Notes From The Underground
• Gogol - short stories
• Gorky - autobiography (three volumes)
• Hawthorne - short stories, Scarlet Letter, Seven Gables
• F. Scott Fitzgerald - guess
• Mararet Atwood - novels and poems
• Hemingway - novels and short stories
• Henry James - Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, Aspern Papers, Turn of the Screw
• Raymond Carver - short stories, not the poems
• Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights
• Flaubert - Madame Bovary
• Hardy - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
• Chekhov - stories, not (embarrassingly) the plays
• Somerset Maugham - Of Human Bondage, Razor's Edge, Cakes and Ale, stories, Moon and Sixpence
• Borges - stories, some poems
• Conrad - Heart of Darkness, Secret Agent, Nigger of the Narcissus
• Forster - A Room with a View
• Defoe - Robinson Crusoe
• Voltaire - Candide
• Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude
• Nabokov - Lolita, Pale Fire
• Wodehouse - anything

posted by pracowity at 3:36 AM on March 7, 2001

I could never get through Cerebus, but I read every issue of Lone Wolf and Cub that was published by First, and I'm happily engrossed in the new (complete) Dark Horse edition.
posted by sudama at 4:51 AM on March 7, 2001

> this American compulsion to cite Ayn Rand as a novelist
> and a philosopher, when she's neither.

Hee hee. Yes, Rand is bad no matter how you look at her.
posted by pracowity at 4:59 AM on March 7, 2001

Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of European modernism - people seem to bracket it with Ulysses, The Waste Land, and so on. It hasn't been available in translation for very long, though, which is why it is not particularly well-known. Also it is very long indeed (not quite Proust-length, though). I have it, but am 'saving it' for a long holiday - rather like Tristram Shandy, which I have started about six times so far and still never finished.

I like to think that I'm just easily distracted.
posted by Caffa at 5:08 AM on March 7, 2001

I would defend Bleak House to all the would-be Dickens mutilators. But I wouldn't defend The Satanic Verses to anyone who would make a point of disliking it, even though I did like it. To anyone with a working knowledge of British society, Islam and magic realism it isn't really a struggle. But Rushdie does tend to twitter a lot, and he doesn't have the warmth that might make you really care for the book.
posted by argybarg at 6:43 AM on March 7, 2001

Don't attack my Stephen Dedalus! I love Stephen! :) which sounds funny, because I also have an ex-boyfriend named Stephen.

The list of things I haven't read is far too long to list here. Hopefully I'll remedy that eventually. Pretty much anything old and British except Shakespeare, Wuthering Heights, Tale of two Cities, and just a handful of poems. And anything French, I haven't read any French guys except Ionesco, who I love, but isn't really a classic (yet).

And I mentioned my love for Kafka in another thread recently, but I'm studying German, I love weird dudes like him.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:52 AM on March 7, 2001

This is a great thread. A bunch of us sitting around comparing the sizes of our, um, libraries. Who can resist?

Literary guilt is almost always misplaced. I used to suffer from it, but nowadays, if something doesn't speak to me, I either blame the author or figure there's just some sort of mismatch between the author and me.

I also think that as people change over time, their literary tastes change. When I was a freshman, my professor in "Major English Novels" ended the course with Lady Chatterly's Lover. She said that in the past she'd finished with A Passage to India but had reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was a book best understood by people over 35. (This same professor did, however, force us to read Tristram Shandy, and I couldn't do it; a few years later, I did force myself to read it, but I was still afflicted with literary guilt in those days.) Another professor told me the same thing about Moby Dick, except he said over 40. I tried MD a few years ago, at ~35, and I still didn't get it. I've recently turned 40, so perhaps I'll try again. But perhaps I'll wait until after I'm dead, just to make sure that I'm really old enough.

I've experienced this phenomenon numerous times. As a freshman, I had no appreciation for the subtleties of Pride and Prejudice, and now it's one of my very favorite books (although if forced to choose one Jane Austen novel to take into the next life, I'd go with Emma).

As for Joyce, I cannot help mentioning that in my last semester at college, I took a seminar "Ulysses and the Great Moderns." I did not like Ulysses. I found it very clever but hollow. Still, I forced myself to read it twice, and I'm very proud that I was able to do that. It's probably true that Finnegan's Wake makes more sense read aloud, but it's a big book. That would take a long, long time, and couldn't you better spend that time building your paper clip collection?

Over time, I've found that there's very little I can't read. There are things I won't read. Fitzgerald and Hemingway head that list.

The only book that I've really regretted being unable to read is Gravity's Rainbow. I tried in college (after enjoying The Crying of Lot 49) but just couldn't get into it. When I was about 30, I tried again, and I very much enjoyed it, but when I got halfway through, I mislaid the book and didn't find it for about six weeks. By that time, all the balls that I'd been mentally juggling to have some hope of following the story had fallen, and it was either reread the first 300 pages or admit defeat. Maybe someday.

Although I find literary guilt pointless, other people's literary tastes still influence how I look at those people. Books that I like fall into two camps, which are epitomized by Dickens and Austen. I adore Dickens, but he's unquestionably excessive. I find his excess entertaining and thrilling and somehow honest. But if you don't like Dickens, I understand why. Austen is a different matter entirely. If you don't like her work, it tells me that you have no appreciation for subtlety and truly fine writing. If you're over 24 and don't like Austen, at some level I'm always going to consider you a Philistine. The same holds for Middlemarch, but to a lesser degree, and only if you're over 35. If you don't like Faulkner, I won't hold it against you, but I will pity you.
posted by anapestic at 6:56 AM on March 7, 2001

Oh yeah, I did manage to get through Swann's Way, but I didn't see the point in reading the other six volumes of Proust. If you really feel guilty about it, however, I have a suggestion. Try reading it aloud, in French. That only works if you don't understand French, by the way.
posted by anapestic at 6:57 AM on March 7, 2001

holgate: See, it's this American compulsion to cite Ayn Rand as a novelist and a philosopher, when she's neither.

I don't get this. I hate Ayn Rand as much as the next guy, but how can you argue Rand's not a novelist?

And, give me a definition for philosophy which holds for, say, Plato, but not for Rand? (The only one I can possibly come up with is that Plato is shelved in the philosophy section of Barnes and Noble, but Rand isn't.)
posted by MarkAnd at 7:27 AM on March 7, 2001

MarkAnd: how can you argue Rand's not a novelist?

Sheer outrageous hyperbole. I'm reminded of Woolf's withering comment that the Sitwells belonged to the history of publishing, not literature.

anapestic: If you're over 24 and don't like Austen, at some level I'm always going to consider you a Philistine.

Heh. My supervisor said the same of me (verbatim: "well, you obviously have no sense of humour"); and I had a long, interesting conversation with a professor at NYU over my allergy to Austen, and my attempts to rationalise it. (And I truly consider it an intellectual allergy; I really want to appreciate her "subtlety" in the way that I'm attuned to Pope, Johnson, Addison et al -- Austen's stylistic forefathers -- but it's like sticking needles in my eyes.)

As for Tristram Shandy: it's funny. Really, really funny, in a smart and silly way that's emulated by just a few modernish authors, such as Flann O'Brien. (Read At Swim-Two-Birds. Now.)
posted by holgate at 7:56 AM on March 7, 2001

I can't really come at the beat stuff myself, either. I finished The Naked Lunch and wished I hadn't read it. It just shat me to tears. I've since tried other Burroughs and can't make it fly; he may be an idol, but he just annoys the fuck out of me.

I support the thumbs-up for The Quincunx - it's a good read. It is dense, but it comes with the benefit of having a dramatis personae of sorts at the back, so unlike the impenetrable Dickensian novels, it's easy to figure out who's doing what, and to whom.

Actually, in terms of Dickens, I hated him until I read Great Expectations. I was doing that uni "night-before-paper-due-read-book-and-write-essay" thing, and was actually enthralled by the story. The fact that it managed to break me out of that "fucking essay!" apathy made me realise why it's a classic. Ditto with Moby Dick, though since that damn miniseries, I can't help but picture Patrick Stewart as Ahab, which isn't a good thing.

Re: Joyce - hated Portrait but dug Ulysses. Like a lot of Perec's stuff, when you accept that it's written to a schedule, and that each chapter follows a particular set of rules, it's fun to read. Though I'm sure he'd hate that. And as wankily lit-student as it sounds, it's really a book that benefits from rereading. I haven't had the intestinal fortitude to tackle Finnegans Wake yet. I'm not going to, either.

I guess the thing about "classic" books is that you really have to be in the right mindset to read them. I've got the Musil and Tristram Shandy sitting on the shelf, but just haven't been at the right place to make a go of them. Too used to inhaling modern novels, perhaps.

And At Swim Two-Birds is great, too. It's more fucked-up than Pynchon, if you can imagine.
posted by captainfez at 8:18 AM on March 7, 2001

Do I get to feel smug because I have actually read that? Holgate is so right. And the rest - The Third Policeman is tops as well.

A pint of plain is your only man.

posted by Caffa at 8:20 AM on March 7, 2001

Though I feel it's only fair to point out that At-Swim-Two-Birds is Terry Wogan's favourite book, which struck me as being most odd. Hidden depths, evidently.
posted by Caffa at 8:47 AM on March 7, 2001

Pynchon certainly seems to figure in this thread. Do I get minor props for actually managing to complete Gravity's Rainbow? It doesn't matter--I found Mason & Dixon to be intolerable, and cast it aside after 300 pages (I felt like I was flinging thirty dollars--and close to thirty pounds--into the garbage).

Modern classics . . . man, folks, say it with me: Richard Powers. Galatea 2.2 and the phenomenally wonderful Gold Bug Variations. Don't miss them. The man is a wizard.
posted by Skot at 8:57 AM on March 7, 2001

Flann O'Brien has gained a lot of fans recently.

Personally, I liked The Poor Mouth better, but that's only much fun if you've read any of the Blasket writers.
posted by blastboy at 9:43 AM on March 7, 2001

A work I'm not seeing mentioned here, but ought to be: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Four novels, Justine, Balthashar, Mountolive and Clea, offering four different perspectives of the same group of characters and many of the same events, set in pre-WWII Alexandria, Egypt. Beautiful, amazing writing, very much worth reading again and again.

As for what I myself haven't read: Proust (I look at all those six volumes of the new Modern Library editions and think how can I ever get through all that) and Gravity's Rainbow has been on my list ever since Laurie Anderson's "Mister Heartbreak" album, which includes a song inspired by it. Haven't read any Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Virigina Woolf. And barely touched Dickens.
posted by dnash at 10:10 AM on March 7, 2001

"Proust in his first book, wrote about, wrote about..."

I have too many gaps to count, and unfortunately am not yet above literary guilt. But I'll second any votes for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — read that one in college and thoroughly enjoyed it. And Virginia Woolf's long been on my guilty list...I'm beginning to feel a need to go to the bookstore suddenly.
posted by raku at 11:10 AM on March 7, 2001

I guess the thing about "classic" books is that you really have to be in the right mindset to read them.

Absolutely. And some great books are hard reads, just as some great pieces of music are hard listens. There's no great shame in slobbing out and reading Michael fucking Crichton if it's the alternative to the airline magazine. Just don't publish a doctoral thesis on its literary merits and expect to be recruited by the TLS.

(Though I actually find flights a good time for uninterrupted "hard" reading: I used a transatlantic trip to read Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String, which is a fine, fine book, but definitely not light work.)
posted by holgate at 11:56 AM on March 7, 2001

re: Ayn Rand: she is obviously a novelist (and even a philosopher), just not a very good one. Read some Nietzsche and Adam Smith and you'll get all of her ideas in a more original form. And Nietzsche even writes well.
posted by dagnyscott at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2001

Personally, I don't see the issues people have had w/ Gravity's Rainbow... it's been one of my faves for a few years now. (granted, the first time I read it, I had the Gravity's Rainbow Companion next to me because of what I had heard about it).

And I don't even consider myself well-read. (so there)
posted by tj at 12:47 PM on March 7, 2001

I don't know if the omission of Woolf from almost the entire course of this discussion means people either uniformly read her, or uniformly ignore her. Or maybe they just don't care about her either way.

I've never even read Virginia Woolf until college, and then suddenly I was assigned three of her novels over two semesters (and Michael Cunningham's overrated The Hours to boot). To the Lighthouse completely blew me away, and is currently my favorite novel. And this completely annoys me: she's been on my "oh I should read her since I vaguely heard she's important" list for a while now, and when I'm finally given an incentive to read it I never realized what I'd been missing all this time. The more I read, the more I realize that "filling in the holes in my swiss cheese of a personal library" is, in truth, completely reversed. I honestly don't see how anyone could attain even a semblence of swiss cheese in their "well-readness" without decades of dedicated reading. And I just haven't been on Earth that long.

So I'm taking notes on the books mentioned here, to see which gems I've got to make sure not to miss (like I almost did with Woolf). I've already noted several on my own will-read list mentioned here (like Ulysses, even though I disliked Portrait). I'm sure that this collection of literary regrets from the all-knowing MeFi's (cough) will prove interesting. :-)
posted by DaShiv at 1:04 PM on March 7, 2001

Personally I love anything and everything Steinbeck (well, I never could get into East of Eden, but I'll try again someday), and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is my favorite novel ever. I've never even attempted Moby Dick, but I'm absolutely fascinated by Bartleby the Scrivener for some reason... I've read it many times over the years. Shakespeare is great, but I like to see a play a couple of times before I read it.

But I'm obviously a literary dunce, because I've never read any Russian guys or Bronte or Proust. I tried to start Portrait... once, but never got very far. I've only ever read Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol by Dickens. Only The Sun Also Rises (I think) by Hemingway. I've never read Atwood, Fitzgerald, or Austen.

So what should a guy like me, who loves Steinbeck, Animal Farm, and Brave New World try next? Any suggestions from you literary aficianados?
posted by daveadams at 1:12 PM on March 7, 2001

As a holder of a degree in literature from a fancy university (one of many to post to this topic, I think!) I have many dark confessions of books not read ... Tolstoy and Doestoyesvky being first among them, as well as most of the long verse cannon (excluding Eliot ... I even read Four Quartets!).

However, I think I can be of help with respect to Middlemarch. The secret to that book is to read it in sittings of not less than four hours not less often than every other day. It is so huge that you need to get into its interconnected world in a serious way ... and it helps for the circumstances of your life to be such that Middlemarch is not the burden you fear, but the escape from the larger burden you fear even more. (In my case, I read the novel in a two-week period while preparing for the LSAT...)
posted by MattD at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2001

Put me in the "uniformly read" category, DaShiv -- not much point in listing canonical authors one has read, unless you think they're being neglected. My, say, Faulkner- or Bellow-reading experience is minimal, which is noteworthy (in terms of this discussion); I've read The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway, which is more a "dog bites man" thing.

Saul Bellow: Should I even bother?

Dave, if you're looking for "Russian guys", Chekov's play Uncle Vanya is non-threatening and great; Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground is dense but short. And great. I've never read any of Tolstoy's longer work, but I really like Dostoyesvky. While Orwell's journalistic//straightforward prose style wasn't really the thing in the canonical novels of the 20th century, but you might want to try Hemingway (who I don't really think highly, of myself), Graham Greene or (difficult author) Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, which I found really funny and a joy to read.

It's interesting that there's no poetry being discussed, but maybe familiarity "well-readness" no longer requires familiarity with Donne or Shelley, much less Ashbery or Rothke.
posted by snarkout at 3:02 PM on March 7, 2001

Faulkner is a huge blind spot for me. In college I was assigned Sanctuary, which a good number of people seem to think is Faulkner's worst book, and I've never been able to muster up the urge to return (although I have two of his other books currently on my shelf).

I tend to focus on postmodern literature, so I don't feel much shame at having not read much Austen or writers of her ilk, but I feel embarassed at my failure to complete Gravity's Rainbow or Vineland, since Pynchon is like the big daddy of postmodern American lit. I get three quarters of the way through and then everything implodes. I was 100 pages away from the finish line with Rainbow when I gave up. I did read The Crying of Lot 49 and I still love it.

I haven't read enough of the Bible! I've only given Genesis, Exodus, Job, and two of the four New Testament gospels a serious read. Other major world religious texts are a total blank.

The Odyssey and the Iliad are on my "must read before dying" list, but no luck so far. Ovid's Metamorphoses. I read Dante's Inferno a few summers ago (Pinsky translation) and was glad I did.

posted by jbushnell at 5:03 PM on March 7, 2001

Mason & Dixon: what's the problem? I'm on page 412 right now and having no problems.
posted by davidgentle at 5:27 PM on March 7, 2001

The "must read before dying" thing makes me wonder: at what point in history did the production of reading material finally outstrip the capacity to read it?

We can reconstruct Shakespeare's library, more or less, from the stories he shamelessly purloins for his plays, and the allusions he makes, as well as knowing the "standard library" for a literate actor-playwright c. 1600. Even with his little Latin and less Greek, that was quite a bit to get through; a classicist such as Jonson was even better-read. But back then, there were no newspapers as such, nor periodicals: in short, if you could get hold of a book, it was probably a Great Work of Literature. (Or theology.) But that was before Galileo, Hooke and Newton, and the splintering of discourses and flourishing of the presses which made the pursuit of a complete, learned "knowledge of the world" increasingly futile.

That sounds depressing, but Eliot (T. S.) had this to say: 'Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know.'
posted by holgate at 5:32 PM on March 7, 2001

snarkout: hear hear. I'm appalled that even poetic giants like Auden are completely new to me in college because of my stilted curriculum earlier. In high school, we hit Shakespeare, Dickinson, and a smattering of Romantics as far as poetry went. I had to wait until college discover classics like Milton, Spencer, and Donne as well as more contemporaries like Auden, Plath, and Ashbery. Meanwhile, scores of my high school peers with absolutely no patience for (or appreciation of) extended reading suffered through Grapes of Wrath and A Tale of Two Cities alongside me. Don't get me wrong, the "Big Novel" is great--for lit students. It just seems ludicrous to me that we'd impose their sheer bulk upon teenagers and intimidate them with "this is Literature" at the expense of their exposure to poetry, a more compressed and equally accessible tradition that predates prose. These are "impossible" poets, but then again there are also "impossible" novelists--both forms have their champions and merits. I really enjoy both prose and poetry, but building a solid reading foundation in poetry is like starting from scratch. Outside of poetry-specific classes, it's often treated as a footnote in general literature classes these days...

Of course, volumes of poetry don't sell nearly as well as novels do, either. These has to be a publisher's conspiracy in education somewhere! (A hopeless attempt at sarcasm by a student of poetry, but who knows...)

Some light on the situation would be appreciated.
posted by DaShiv at 6:14 PM on March 7, 2001

I think that the available material outstripped the ability of people to read it either very late in the nineteenth or very early in the twentieth century. Back in the nineteenth century, educated people were expected to read the classics (meaning Greek and Latin), medieval, renaissance, and post-renaissance poetry, philosophy, and prose. In those days, publication was still relatively infrequent, and spare time was either abundant (for the educated classes, who had servants to do everything for them) or non-existent (for the illiterate). I'm estimating without a lot of research here, but the pre-nineteenth century reading list could probably have been covered in fewer than 200 volumes. Another 300 volumes would probably have covered nineteenth century literature and poetry (English and American) and still have left room for the German philosophers and those bawdy Frenchmen.

I think a library of 500 volumes would have done just about any 19th c. reader proud and would have left him feeling that he had pretty much covered everything worth reading. Of course, that's a Western perspective, but at that point, I don't think Eastern works were considered essential to the average educated reader (Dorothea Brooke's comments about wanting to marry a man who could teach her Hebrew notwithstanding).

That's one book a week for ten years. Even if all of those books were of Dickensian or Trollopian length, you could manage that, if you didn't have a job or Metafilter to worry about.

By the time Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Kafka and others were writing, that was all blown out of the water. It's great to have so many choices, of course, but it's sad that our cultural literacy is now based on television instead of literature. I wish there were some way to make sure that everyone graduating high school had read the same core of perhaps 50 books. That way there would always be a common body of literature to refer to, so you wouldn't always have to talk about either sports or Survivor.

posted by anapestic at 6:31 PM on March 7, 2001

As if anyone cares, I have frequently whittled my library for moving and decided on three books which must always be at hand: Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Duras's The Lover and Nabokov's Lolita. So what's your minimal library?
posted by methylsalicylate at 10:05 PM on March 7, 2001

> As if anyone cares

I do.

> So what's your minimal library?

I like two of yours (the Maugham and the Nabokov) very, very much. I know nothing about Duras. Tell us more, please.

If I were going to be away from books for some time, I might smuggle Hamlet, either Palgrave's Golden Treasury or the Oxford Book of English Verse, and maybe a good Wodehouse collection away in my pack.
posted by pracowity at 11:54 PM on March 7, 2001

This thing about when the material available outstripped the ability to read it...

I remember reading, in Paul Fussell's The Great war and Modern Memory, that soldiers in the trenches had a remarkably literary culture, based on intense reading of canonical works of literature: the Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Quiller-Couch, Browne, Milton, and so on. I also remember finding a list of books from Wilfred Owen's library (in a biography by Dominic Hibberd, I think) - there were about 500 of them all told, and they included a fairly standard selection of novelists and poets - Tennyson, Thackeray - as well as some of the Georgian poets. So 500 seems a reasonable estimate (bearing in mind that although Owen was a poet and therefore might be expected to have a few books, he was also 24 when he was killed).

I think what this indicates is, as anapestic points out, the fracturing of the idea of a canon in the second half of the twentieth century. But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, though it does mean that there's no longer any such thing as *a* literary culture like that of the WWI trenches. For a start, it might come to mean that people who might enjoy reading aren't forced to plough through fat novels and poems they hate in the name of the canon. I know whereof I speak - I did Thomas Hardy's poetry for GCSE and A-level, and The Mayor of Casterbridge at A-level and now I cannot stand the work of one of the greats of English literature. Maybe if I hadn't been spoon-fed too much Hardy I might now be able to appreciate it.
posted by Caffa at 2:41 AM on March 8, 2001

Mm, Caffa, I agree that the canon as the be-all and end-all is impractical and outdated. But I also think that there's no reason that it should be automatically disregarded. It's an interesting record of what's gone before, and while it's obviously impossible to get the same sort of thing running for literature today, I think it's valuable as a time-tested "check this out" list, the likes of which whip around mailing lists I'm on with alarming regularity.

I guess the thing about classical/canonical literature is all about how it's presented initially. And in my case, that's associated with uni/school education. You read according to your own tastes once you're out of school, but in school you're reliant on how something's presented to make your impressions of it. If it's a drag to learn, it's a drag to read - I've discovered that with some authors, and gone back to read them (Austen, particularly) to discover that it's not as bad as I remembered, and quite enjoyable, in fact. But my overwhelming sense of irritation of the work had stemmed from the fact that it was presented as a creaky tome *initially*, not as something worth reading.

In school - and at university, too - I was lucky enough to have a couple of teachers that made it all seem worthwhile. Sure, it's childish to speak in Blackadder's voice while doing Richard III or to ask a class if Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff is a dickhead or not, but it's that sort of easy approach that makes people (well, me, though maybe I'm not representative) want to read stuff. History tends to be just as dry to read, but it's always injected with that element of "this actually happened!" or "this is relevant!", so people seem to regard it as less of a drag than lit. I know people who'd hate reading an 18th century novel but would practically salivate when presented with the chance to read some Tacitus. Weird.

Even in university, it wasn't until I got into my final two years and discovered two lecturers (Don Anderson and Dave Kelly, for anyone who might know 'em) - who were open-minded enough to let their charges throw rocks at these sacred textual cows - that I really started to *enjoy* what I was studying. I'd taken it in before, but when there's an involvement in the text, that's when reading becomes (kill me now) fun. Maybe the literature cringe is down to bored tastes from bored teachers?

Interesting segue: Murakami's Norwegian Wood suggests that a good yardstick of a novelist is that they've got to be dead for thirty years before they're worth reading. I wonder...

posted by captainfez at 3:39 AM on March 8, 2001

what's your minimal library?

Boswell's Life of Johnson: though it's a fair wodge of book, it's an encyclopaedia of what it means to be human.

Caffa: I'm lucky enough to have seen Wilfred Owen's library, in the state he left it, re-shelved at the Oxford English faculty. It's quite remarkable: dozens of tiny Everyman and World's Classic hardback editions, india paper duodecimos made for the popular market. Lots and lots of nineteenth-century -- I particularly remember the Keats and Shelley volumes, set apart from the rest and obviously read to the point of distraction -- but earlier authors as well. Books that you could slip into a jacket pocket without it showing.

(If you're ever on a day-trip out to Oxford during the week, take a visit.)
posted by holgate at 3:41 AM on March 8, 2001

> (If you're ever on a day-trip out to Oxford during
> the week, take a visit.)

But don't slip any of poor Wilfred's books into your jacket pocket.
posted by pracowity at 3:48 AM on March 8, 2001

don't slip any of poor Wilfred's books into your jacket pocket.

It would take some effort: I think the metal grille and glass fronting for the shelves is a recent addition ;)

Little point: the "canon", or at least the notion of a canon, comes from the publishers' collections of the late 18th century, which came about because of a change to copyright law making older texts public domain. Like Penguin reprints, these editions were distinguished by the modern notable paid to write the introductions. (That's where Johnson's Lives of the Poets comes from.)

In short, the "canon" was invented to sell books. And the same principle underpins the Norton anthology today. The result? Many authors are canonical and unread; others are worth reading and inaccessible, since their books are long out of print. (It took a lot of effort from Joyceans to get Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno reissued.)
posted by holgate at 4:59 AM on March 8, 2001

Can you get in with a Bod card? I've seen the online pictures of The Hydra - they're pretty amazing as well, aren't they?

I agree with you, Captain Fez, that often it's the way in which a text is taught that makes or mars it for the student. Part of my problem with Hardy stemmed from the fact that we were not allowed to criticise the work which I found particularly annoying. I mean, 'wan wistlessness' - for goodness' sake...
posted by Caffa at 5:02 AM on March 8, 2001

"Minimal library" is a frightening concept. Incident to my divorce, I'll be moving, and I'm going to have to pare my collection down, but I doubt it'll ever get under 200.

But if I had to....

Fortunately, the complete works of Shakespeare are available in one book. The same is true for Jane Austen. I'd have to toss in Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House for my required Dickens fix. I don't think I could get by without Absalom! Absalom! and Light in August. That's six. I'm traumatized just thinking about it.
posted by anapestic at 6:53 AM on March 8, 2001

I know nothing about Duras. Tell us more, please.

The one thing those three books have in common is that they are (somewhat, anyway) about hopeless love. What strikes me about The Lover is that it is written from the point of view of the object of that affection, which is a rare-ish thing, and that she writes so simply and with such empathy. It was recently made into a crappy film which you should avoid along with all film adaptations of Lolita and Of Human Bondage [aside: Gwyneth Paltrow, even as overexposed as she is, would make the most perfect Mildred, don't you think?].

The minimal library concept is just that - minimal. I'd love to have all of Margaret Atwood's work on hand at all times, sure; Hardy and Mann absolutely shatter me; Kingsley Amis deserves a mention; Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold is the one book I've given as a gift more than any other. But those three are the ones I could read to the end and start right over again, forever. They're the desert island collection: given a steady source of food and fresh water, I'm not sure I'd want to be rescued.
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:36 AM on March 8, 2001

Minimal library:

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths.

These two (slim) books contain more universes than one could fully explore in a single lifetime.
posted by jbushnell at 7:43 AM on March 8, 2001

jbushnell: excellent choices! Invisible Cities in particular is one of the richest works I've ever read. I've sometimes wondered whether it might become the same sort of cult classic among web designers and software people that A Pattern Language has. It has that same kind of inexhaustibility.

I'd take The Cantos (and no, I'm not a fascist) and the Bible (no, I'm not a Christian) and probably Shakespeare's Sonnets. If I were to take any Nabokov it would be Ada, not Lolita (which is another one of those books I just could not finish).

One of the forces that led to the idea of a canon (in the new world, anyway) is the impossibility of transporting one's library to the Colonies. The idea of a canonical selection of works to start anew with seems to have gotten deeply embedded in the American psyche because of that. Thus we have the "three-foot shelf of books" idea in various guises in the US--and why various people that for some reason didn't make the cut (like Sir Thomas Browne) are canonical in the UK but virtually unknown in the US.
posted by rodii at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2001

Hey! C'mon thread, don't die!
posted by rodii at 4:35 PM on March 9, 2001

All right, Rodii, I'll say that I think If on a winter's night a traveller has it over Invisible Cities. And I'm a Pale Fire man.

Playing desert island disks: The Secret Agent (Conrad), To the Lighthouse (Woolf), and A Maggot (John Fowles) to go with my Shakespeare and Bible.
posted by snarkout at 6:31 PM on March 9, 2001

Pale Fire was my second choice. The thing is, I don't know how much rereading it will stand.

For some reson I've never read If on a winter's night a traveller. I've always wanted to.
posted by rodii at 9:27 AM on March 10, 2001

Gee . . . shows how tastes differ. I grimly soldiered through Pale Fire, and didn't really enjoy it all that much.

I can only think of one book that would be indispensible if stranded, and it's a weird one: John Irving's Hotel New Hampshire. I know, I know . . . it's not even Irving's "best," but there's something about it that just tugs at me every time. It's like visiting a very old friend. That and the fact that it's an extended homage to The Great Gatsby . . . aw, jeez. I dunno. It's just my favorite, is all.
posted by Skot at 4:29 PM on March 10, 2001

It's brilliant, Rodii. Read it.

I've reread Pale Fire two or three times, and liked it more each time. Sine I don't have to deal with lunatic professors at this stage of my life, though, I'm not sure if I'd still like it as much.
posted by snarkout at 7:10 PM on March 10, 2001

Last post!
posted by daveadams at 4:45 PM on July 16, 2001

Sorry, Dave but that was only the second last post.

This is the last post.
posted by lagado at 7:21 PM on July 16, 2001

The dickens it is!
posted by pracowity at 10:28 PM on July 16, 2001

No way, THIS is the last post.
posted by tj at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2001

Don't you guys read?

and the first shall be last.

That's me!
posted by Skot at 11:22 AM on July 17, 2001

Sorry Skot, but I respectfully beg to differ:

posted by lagado at 3:49 PM on July 17, 2001

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