Saturday, September 7, 2013

Fake-Reading the Classics: True Confessions of a Dude Who Never Read Jane Eyre

I think I had a pretty good college education, thanks to the programs at the Universities of Wyoming, Oregon and Alaska.  Those classes introduced me to some of the literary pillars of my life: Flannery O'Connor, Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, et al.  But for every Things Fall Apart that was forced-fed to me on my graduate reading list, there were an equal number of unread Thomas Hardy novels.

I've never lied about my Unreads, never puffed myself up during cocktail chatter, expostulating on the cyclical structure of time and history of Finnegan's Wake.  I never said I read Lord Jim or pretended to know Proust.

Apparently, however, some would-be readers have prevaricated.  Once or twice or a hundred times, according to a recent British poll:
In a bid to appear more intelligent, more than 60 per cent of people have lied about reading classic novels.  A leading research team polled 2,000 members of the British public to find out the tactics people employ to appear more intelligent, with some enlightening results.  The most popular ruse is pretending to have read classic novels, with 42 per cent of people relying on film and TV adaptations, or summaries found online, to feign knowledge of the novels.  Surprisingly, half of the adults questioned admit to having displayed books on their shelves without ever having read them.
Well, okay, that last is especially true in my household.  There are thousands (more than 6,000, to be exact) of books "on display" in my basement which have never been--and probably never will be--read.  My life is nothing but a series of daily agonies and regrets.

Saw the movie, didn't read the book

Jane Eyre?  Nope.  The Grapes of Wrath?  Uh-uh.  The Wind in the Willows?  Blew right past me.  Philip Roth?  Not a single word.

For the record, these are the books on the British Top Feigned Reads which I have read: War and Peace, Great Expectations, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Crime and Punishment.  So I'm, like, superior to more than 60 percent of Brits.  Not that I'm lording it over anybody or anything.

Saw the movie, read the book, and drank the coffee

Nonetheless, there are sad, chasmic gaps in my reading career.  I dream of deserted islands, prison sentences and hospital stays which would allow me to catch up on all that I've missed.

These are the titles which top my Literary Bucket List (the ones I hope to read before I kick the bucket) (*and, yes, I realize the list is mostly populated by Dead White Guys) (**furthermore, with the exception of Cather, Joyce, Orwell, and Bradbury, I haven't read anything by these authors):

Ulysses by James Joyce
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy...or Tess of the D'Urbervilles or The Mayor of Casterbridge or anything by TH, frankly
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Anything by P. G. Wodehouse
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Kidnapped and/or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Perpetually perched at the #1 spot, however, is Lolita which, for too many years to count, I've been battering myself over the head for not reading.  I always think, "This will be the year, this will be the year."   But then something bright and shiny and new comes along and Lo slips farther down in the TBR stack.

I've vowed, however, this will be the year.  Definitely.  Hopefully.  Maybe.

So what about you?   What classics have you regrettably not read?  Confess in the comments section.


  1. I came out of my undergraduate program having read little more than what was needed to pass English in my junior year of high school and an AP prep course my senior year. (I wasn't an English Major in college and I placed out of taking English 101 by acing the AP exam.) I definitely regretted it.

    So, to 'solve' the problem, when I started working at a book store in my late 20s, I agreed to lead the store's Classics Reading Group. This, along with agreeing to work in the children's section, made me appear heroic to my co-workers because the Classics group was renowned for being a tough crowd.

    As a result, I HAD to read a classic a month for the 3 1/2 years I worked there. And, as the book choices were made democratically, I didn't always like what I read. But, we had such an intelligent and fascinating group of people that I always appreciated what I'd read more after our conversations. In fact, I continued with the group for another 10+ years after I left the store. (I left the group when I moved from the Boston area, but it's still going and I'm still on the e-mail list, so I still read for it when I have time.)

    So, if you really want to read the classics, I highly recommend finding such a group, or founding one yourself. For me, it was a great thing, though I have to admit, because I'm a slow reader, I had little time to read much ELSE when I was in the group. I never really minded because great literature is always nourishing, but I am woefully unaware of MODERN lit as a result.

  2. There are some classic writers whose works I've attempted and decided Aren't My Thing, which means I'm simply unwilling to attempt their other books. Billy Budd put me off Melville for good, while "The Beast in the Jungle" did likewise for James. I never even finished "Portrait of the Artist..." so I consider it unlikely that I'll ever attempt Finnegans Wake or Ulysses. And Saul Bellow's "Tolstoy of the Zulus" comment pissed me off so much I doubt I'll ever get around to reading him, either. I would therefore have to say there's no "regrettably" involved with these writers.

    That said, there are writers whose works I haven't read at all but keep meaning to try (James Baldwin, P.G. Wodehouse, John Dos Passos, Thomas Mann, and Sir Walter Scott, among others.)

    What's most common, however, is for me to have read one book or even just a bit of short fiction by an author without ever getting around to anything else by him/her. That means I've got to start reading War & Peace, The House of Mirth, A Farewell to Arms, Mrs. Dalloway, Cannery Row, The Brothers Karamazov, Sense & Sensibility, Dead Souls... books galore.

    Heck, even some writers I've read at some length--Dickens, Nabokov, Chesterton, Shakespeare, Twain--still have plenty of material left to show me.

    Basically, then, I don't worry about running out of classics to read.

    But yeah, man, you need to get to Lolita. Like, yesterday.

  3. I read all the books I was ever assigned to read, and as an English major, there were plenty. It doesn't mean I liked them all...but I read them. I will say that on your list there are a few that you could skip, but I don't know what books you treasure, so I can't really judge which ones you would deem a waste of time.
    I can tell you that as a high school English teacher, we are being encouraged to "step away from the classics" and teach more contemporary fiction. The conundrum is that there is so little contemporary fiction that isn't full of content that parents would find objectionable. That's my excuse for teaching Dickens, and I'm sticking to it.

  4. Kirby: Any excuse to teach Dickens is a good one!

  5. David, my list of unread classics would be even "worse" than yours. And I've read a TON of books, including classics. Heck, as an English major, I took two classes on Dickens alone (the regular elective and a special senior seminar that was offered once every five years, both taught by the same scholar/prof). On your list, I exhort you to read The Grapes of Wrath, anything/everything by Thomas Hardy (hard to pick a favorite, maybe Tess), Kidnapped, 1984, and Lord of the Flies. You can skip Kennedy Toole and Collins. Instead of Vanity Fair, I'd opt for The Way We Live Now by Trollope. I hope you've read some Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory are must-reads). PLEASE read James Agee's A Death in the Family and the just-published Cotton Tenants (a long essay that was rejected by the magazine for which he wrote it, and later expanded to become the legendary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). Or you can dispense with all of these and just read everything by Dickens.

  6. BW: "Confederacy of Dunces" is second in line behind "Lolita" on that list. I cannot die without reading it--I've already warned my body about this indisputable fact. Good or bad, I *will* read it before Last Breath. "Vanity Fair" to Trollope is an easy swap for me since I was indifferent to Thackeray. And, yes, Graham Greene needs to be added to my list and should have been there in the first place.

    As for Dickens, I'm way ahead of you. I've read every novel--some twice, even thrice--and most of the non-fiction. I only have the Italy travel book and the children's stories left to read.

  7. David: Love your posts. And Fobbit is in my pile of "to be read soon" books.

    Like you, I somehow managed to NOT read most of the classics, even as a graduate English student. I spent (misspent?) my youth and undergraduate days reading science fiction. I love Shakespeare but haven't read a word of Dickens. (I suppose I should rectify that, eh?)

    I was forced to read Jude the Obscure in graduate school and found it to be one of the worst books I've ever read. Poorly plotted, poorly thought out, and full of ridiculous coincidences. I can't help but think Hardy wrote it as a joke, in one afternoon, and published the first draft. Frankly, I wouldn't waste my time with it.

    However, you really should read Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Treasure Island. And even though it's not on your list, The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. That one should be on everyone's list.

    Meanwhile, like you, I must read Lord of the Flies and Lolita. And Moby Dick. The question, of course, is when? Too many books, too little time.

    Jim Mastro