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.
5 years ago