What's interesting about the exercise is that there's a kind of elitist pride that goes along with each admission. Somebody who is not widely read wouldn't play this game, or if they ended up in the middle of it, they'd feel ashamed, or, as the name of the game indicates, humiliated. But the trick of the game, and what makes it fun and not actually humiliating, is this: if you're going to play this game, you're kind of boasting about what you haven't read. You're basically saying, "Oh, I'm so fancy and widely read that I can admit to having skipped one of the classics with a smile on my face and a drink in my hand. I'm such an impostor (except obviously I'm in the club, and I'm not an impostor at all)." This is not the same thing as just plainly stating that one hasn't read a particular book. Rhetorically, it's a lot more interesting. You can't just state the title that you haven't read, or the game wouldn't be any fun. You've got to provide a narrative, something like the following:
"Oh, GOD. I've totally never read Moby Dick! All of that whaling jargon!"
"Surely nobody has ever actually read the entirety of Ulysses! It's just Joyce masturbating on the page!"
"Of course I was assigned Milton's Paradise Lost, but after the first 100 or so lines I just figured, 'is this really necessary'? I mean, who doesn't know that Lucifer's the most interesting character?"
"I know I should have read Kate Chopin's The Awakening, but late 19th-century suicidal housewife angst is so boring!"
What you'll notice about the above is that the admission of not having read the book is always accompanied by an authorizing statement. In other words, I might not have read the book in question, but I am nevertheless a Subject Who Knows, and so in fact it's that I'm so wonderful that I don't need actually to have read this Important Tome in the Canon of Western Literature. If you don't have the authorizing statement, you not only embarrass yourself but everybody else in the room, too. Game over.
All of this came to mind as I read the comments over at Historiann's today, to her post about J.D. Salinger's death. With one lone exception (me), everybody pretty much either a) admitted never to having read Catcher in the Rye or b) said they'd read it but of course they didn't like it because Holden's whiny, because it's boring, because it was irritating, because it's dick lit, whatever.
Now let me just state this clearly and for the record:
- I am not some huge Salinger fan, and never was, not even at 16. This post is so not about whether Salinger is "important" or something. Honestly, I have no idea whether he's an "important" American author or not. I think that his status as a recluse has obscured whatever literary merit his books might have, quite honestly - much in the way that Sylvia Plath's suicide has obscured the literary merit of her novel or her poems.
- People have the right to read or not read, to like or not like, any book out there in the world. I am not disputing that.
And in large part this is interesting to me because it's totally the thing I fight against with my students, because at its heart it's totally anti-intellectual. Again, this isn't to say that one can't dislike certain books, and that there aren't good reasons to dislike them. Nor is it to say that one should read every book one "ought" to have read. But the cocktail party "Oh of course this is stupid and not worthy of my attention" thing drives me a little bit batty. Because here's the thing: I guess deep down I really believe that one should be a little ashamed, a little humiliated, if one doesn't read it (whatever "it" is) or if one reads it and doesn't see why having done so, even if one disliked it, matters. I don't really think that any amount of authorizing statements really let us off the hook for not engaging, or at least noting that our failure to engage is really our own personal responsibility. Again, let me make this clear: there are lots of entirely valid reasons not to like a book, or not to have read a book that one ought to have read. And there are a ton of books that I can name that I've read and not liked, and a ton that I ought to have read that I've either tried and put down or just outright ignored. But that doesn't mean that I don't see the value in them, or at least see why they've been seen to have value. Ultimately, whether one likes a book or whether one enjoys it or whether one agrees with its philosophy or not is totally beside the point.
Of course people think Holden Caulfield is a whiny git. He is. He's an anti-hero, people. You're not really supposed to like him. (Though, of course, I did, because I was a whiny git myself when I read Catcher in the Rye.) "Liking" him, or "identifying" with him really isn't the point, whatever you think of that novel. Similarly, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Ulysses totally is Joyce masturbating on the page. But that doesn't give anybody a pardon for not having done the reading or for saying that the novel is worthless. Obviously, the novel has worth, even if I didn't personally read it or even if I did read it didn't like it. (Or even if I had a more complex response: that I liked some parts and didn't like others. Complex responses are possible, or so I keep trying to convince my students.)
The bottom line is this: there is pleasure in confessing that one didn't like a book that is supposed to be great or that one didn't read a book that one ought to have read. But that pleasure shouldn't obscure the fact that disliking or not reading a book does not equal the book not being worthy of attention. If we believe that either of those things does equal that, we're basically saying that no books are worthy of attention, because, seriously folks? There is at least one reader (or non-reader) of every single book in the world who would dismiss it, and might even congratulate him/herself for doing so. If this is how we're going to judge literary merit, we may as well give up and say that there is no such thing.