Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Ok, so in David Lodge's book Changing Places, the characters play a game that they call "Humiliation," in which they have to admit to books that they've not read. The funny thing about the game is that it's in many ways all about posturing - to choose books that one "should" have read - indeed, that it's unconscionable not to have read - if one is, in fact, so terribly well-read that people can't stand you. It's ultimately a way of showing off how erudite one is, through one's choices of what to reveal. There's no shame in not having been able to stomach finishing The Da Vinci Code, for example, but gasp! alas! to admit to not being able to stomach Moby Dick! The horror!

Well, there's a thread going on over on the Chronicle forums that's ultimately a much less satirical and funny version of this. Because, you know, when real people play this game, it (at least to me) comes off as anti-intellectual and self-congratulatory as opposed to filled with wry hilarity.

Now, this is not to say that I don't have my own list of greatest hits of great books I've failed to finish (or even to begin). We all do. Life's too short to read all the books one should have read. The thing that gets me about this conversation in part is that lots of the books being listed over and over again just so happen to fall into my personal reading list wheelhouse. I'm not at all a pretentious person (I don't think) but I do, ultimately, have pretentious taste in books, some might argue. (This causes me no end of problems, actually, because it attracts actually pretentious and snobby people to me, and then their is a profound disconnect between them and me, at the end of the day, but this is neither here nor there.) I guess the thing about the thread that gets me is that one of the things about the posturing in the novel, and one of the things that makes the game funny, is that the players know they should be ashamed of themselves. In the thread, people seem to be proud of their inability to meet the challenge that certain books pose, kind of like I've had students who are proud of getting through all of high school without having read a single book.

So, here's the thing. There's no shame in not having been able to get through Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (note: there is no apostrophe in "Finnegans" and those talking about the novel's unreadability might want to at least get the title right - and yes, this bothers me, which just shows that I'm a pretentious pedant at least in some respects). And thus, to talk about how unreadable either is, well, it's just not interesting or funny. Most people haven't read those books in their entirety. To admit to not having done so makes a person normal ultimately. And probably not a tiny bit pedestrian, if that's the best a person can come up with.

Come on. We've all got more humiliating admissions to make than that. And when we make them, we should acknowledge that the problem is not necessarily with the book in question (it's too long! it's too hard! too many words! blah!) but rather with our own fortitude as readers.

So I know you're dying for an example from my own personal humiliating list of books I should have read but haven't. Hmmm.

Ok, here's a good one, one that I was assigned in grad school that I did not finish and never have had the desire to finish: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. And yes, I should be ashamed of myself :)

Better than this example, though, would be the examples of movies that I haven't seen but should have done. Schindler's List, people. And they even played that on network TV without commercials, and I still didn't bother to watch it.


Geeka said...

Invisible Man is one of my favorite books. I did my senior thesis in high school on how many times Ellison referenced sight and lack of sight in the book.

I haven't seen schindler's list either, and I am jewish. I also haven't seen something about mary, and that movie with ben stiller (meet the parents?).

I hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird until a few years ago.

Anastasia said...

my particular pedantry tends toward wanting to inform one of the commenters that the statement "I read the Iliad and the Aeneid in Latin" is either ambiguous (i.e. I read the Iliad; I read the Aeneid in Latin) or it's just plain stupid. Because the Iliad is in Greek.

but someone beat me to it.

I also feel like saying I've not finished proust but that doesn't constitute failure on my part or on his. I adore proust for the sheer pleasure of immersion in lovely descriptive prose and the leisurely pace. love it love it. texts of consolation! feeling harried and stressed? go have a few pages of proust. Who cares that I'm only 800 pages into it? I will finish it eventually but for now, I'm enjoying it, which is the point.

on the other hand, I am genuinely ashamed to have started and never finished the brothers karamasov.

anyway, the tone of the discussion is not unexpected but strange when you take a step back--to assert that books caused one pain, anguish, horror. This is strange. where I really can't go is to the assertion that an authors is a poor writer because one wasn't engaged by the novel.

If I'm not engaged by something, there are reasons having to do with me and with the author but that doesn't add up to poor writing. I didn't finish the brothers karamasov because I started it when I was 17 and I just wasn't in the right head space to connect with it.

movies, given my interest in vampires, I should really have seen nosferatu (the original) and I haven't. I often lie and say that I have because I've seen snippets of it but I have not seen it. I also got bored and wandered out of the room during Bela Lugosi's Dracula, so there's a whole part in the middle that I've not seen.

Feminist Avatar said...

I haven't seen Titanic (which i am secretly proud of) or Schindler's List. I haven't read lots of books and read lots of others; I think however the list of expected to have read or not read books is slightly different in the UK from the US. So, I have never read Moby Dick, but I don't know anyone else who has either. (On the other hand if you havn't read Dickens or Austen in the UK, heaven forbid!)

Sisyphus said...

Yeah, I gotta say that the Chronicle people over there are pretty stupid, or at least without foresight, if they're going to proudly list all these books that they've never read and will never read, when on other threads they complain about the universities not being respected enough and the rampant climate of intellectualism today.

On the other hand: Walden. I fucking hated it, started it at least four different times and pooped out at the same point every time, despite being assigned it in various courses of all types. I just can't get behind some pompous guy who lived in his mom's backyard.

Dr. Crazy said...

Sis, you wrote: "I just can't get behind some pompous guy who lived in his mom's backyard."

I think I've *dated* that guy (multiple times), and that guy typically really digs Thoreau :) (See what I mean about attracting the pompous ne'er-do-wells? It really is a curse. I think that I mistake earnestness for passion or something. It's really tragic.)

Dr. Crazy said...

I should have finished Invisible Man, for sure. It wasn't even that I didn't like it. I just sort of pooped out and ran out of time, and then it never mattered enough to finish it. That's the way in which I suck. It's the laziness, ultimately. You totally beat me on Schindler's List, as I'm not Jewish, but perhaps I can raise you a Saving Private Ryan? :)

Anastasia: I had that same pedantic thought as well, but it was less bothersome than the *repeated* screwing of Finnegans. Here's the thing: if it's a joke on an episode of FRIENDS for god's sake that somebody owns that book and hasn't read it, then it proves NOTHING that somebody's not read it. NOTHING. Anyway, not finishing Proust is totally not a failure. Like Joyce, I feel like Proust is somebody one has to just kind of meander through, or give oneself permission to read around in. That said, I know people who've read Proust in the French, and so I do always feel like a bit of a loser for not have read anything other than Swann's Way, in the English :) I think I read BK in high school. I remember it not at all, but I did go through my Russian Authors Phase. A book that caused me pain: Billy Budd. But I did finish it, nonetheless :) But what you get at with the vampire movies you've not seen is really what I'm all about. It's the sense that given one's interests one should have read/seen something. That it's STANDARD, ultimately, and that since you've not read/seen the standard thing that one is somehow a fraud. That's where the whole "humiliation" name for the game comes in :)

FA: Moby Dick is definitely a US thing. That said, for an English prof, Dickens or Austen would have us busted over on this side of the pond, too :)

Sis: in an actual content-related response to Walden, ah, those transcendentalists. Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em :)

Kjerstin said...

The biggest business newspaper in my neck of the woods has this column on the last page where business people are asked about what they read. The columns has existed for almost 20 years, and I'm thoroughly impressed by the paper's determination to keep it, because none of the business people have ever read anything except the occasional crime and suspense "to relax". If they mention any other books at all, ten to one it's the book that's the most generally hyped at that particular moment (a couple of years ago, they all claimed to be reading The Da Vinci code) - which only suggests that most of them are lying. What's more, you can tell from miles away that they're oozing with pride over being so busy making money that they can't be bothered to read books. I never could get that attitude. Who'd voluntarily deprive themselves of so much fun and so many interesting discoveries? And I say that as someone who's never read Joyce, and probably never will. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be read out there!

Susan said...

I suspect that for me, as for most academics who are NOT English professors, our reading of the "great books" depends on a combination of our reading phases, and the books assigned in class. So necessarily it's kind of all over the place. I read every novel that Willa Cather wrote, but never had Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn assigned (or Moby Dick) and just wasn't interested enough to pursue on my own. These days, I am part of a reading group just so that I DO read novels.

As for movies, I'm hopeless. I *saw* most of Titanic (on a plane) but I didn't have the sound. I didn't see Schindler's List. Or most other movies.

The other part of this is the splintering of culture -- can we agree what we ought to have read?

m. minkoff said...

I think the more embarrassing confession is what you HAVE read and love, despite the fact that it is not fashionable to love it so.

There is a certain pride, among nerdy circles, in being *rebellious.* And being a nerdy rebel involves not reading something that you should.

Dr. Crazy said...

M. Minkoff:
I think you could very well be right. Let me admit my own *entirely shameful* selections:

Anne Rice
Judith Krantz

(pretty much the oeuvre of each :) )

Maude Lebowski said...

i just want to briefly comment on walden. uh, whenever i read it, i'm compelled to clean my house. i don't know whether that embarrasses more or that i've read it more than once or that i find it inspiring when sisyphus's comments about walden and thoreau are dead on. he annoys me, but yet, he inspires me. sigh.

i REFUSE to watch either titanic or saving private ryan. i want to die having never seen either of those movies. i refuse.

MommyProf said...

Love Patricia Cornwell.

Never seen...Fight Club. Titanic (read two-minute version someone e-mailed to me). Saving Private Ryan (did sit through Platoon on a DATE, though). English Patient. Year of Living Dangerously.

Now I feel bad.