If you have ever felt badly for not having read one classic work of literature or another, here’s a dirty little secret that we professorial types are generally loathe to confess: no matter how well-read one is, there are always gaps in our reading. It simply isn’t possible to have read everything ever printed, even if you just limit your “wish list” to the classics. So, if anyone ever gives you the stink eye at a cocktail party because you confess to not having read, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses, know that you are in good company. In a recent highly unscientific query of my friends and colleagues who are either literature professors, literary editors, or voracious readers, every single one of them copped to not having read a work that is generally considered “required” reading for our ilk.
Here are the tearful (okay, literary license) confessions of the most widely unread classics that they promise (promise I tell you!) are definitely on the “list”:
Here is Marilyn Monroe pretending to read Ulysses, just like 9 out of 10 people who claim to have read it. One person we know actually swears he has read it, but we do not like him very much.
2. Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. Perhaps, like us, you always find some reason to avoid contemplating the futility of life and your own meaningless existence in the universe. Understandable. After all, you need to catch up on all the episodes of Mad Men you missed last season. So do we.
If your only knowledge of this novel comes from “The Librarian” episode of Seinfeld, then you probably know it was a naughty book that Jerry checked out as a teenager, lent to George, who never returned it. Most of us haven’t read it either. We have been too busy arranging our other books into proper Dewey Decimal system order. Just thinking about it makes us…dewey.
Hard times? Slogging through this bleak, slow moving book is hard indeed for many confessors. For as many people who adore Dickens, just as many think he’s a snore. If you fall into the latter camp, know that many professors anonymously agree with you.
If you ask a professor what he or she thinks of Middlemarch, prepare for a lot of hemming and hawing and words about its grand achievement and other vague niceties. If you are at the home of the professor, excuse yourself to the restroom. Wander about until you find which door it is propping open. At 1,751 pages, it does a fine job.
How do you suck the joy and light out of something as beautiful and ephemeral as a rainbow? Stick it in the hands of Thomas Pynchon. Like with Joyce’s Ulysses, few who claim to have read and understood Pynchon have read it, much less understood it. And if they have, we resolve to not like them very much either.
Ask professors to quote the first line of Moby Dick and they will immediately respond, “Call me Ishmael,” even if they are in a coma. However, you’d get the same results by asking them to identify which movie the line, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” comes from. If pressed, you’d probably get the whole plot and character sketches from Jaws, but precious little else about the intricacies of Moby Dick.
Most American academics will reluctantly admit that their knowledge of literature other than British or American is woefully inadequate. Most of us intend to rectify that situation, but, we are, after all, Americans, and our favorite subject is ourselves. (Is it telling that the spell-checker here does not recognize either “Karamavoz” or “Fyodor”??) Anyway, for good party fun, ask a professor or other literary type to pronounce “Dostoevsky” after a couple of glasses of Pinot.
Ask your favorite book snob to really detail the plot and themes of Cervantes’ masterpiece and you are likely to get a quixotic look. If you’re lucky, though, he or she might show you the ticket stubs to the Broadway production of Man of LaMancha, you lucky devil!
I don’t know about you, but as a child I was under the impression that War and Peace was the longest novel ever written, and to get through it was a feat not to even be attempted, like trying to eat one of those five pound burritos in order to get your meal for free. Whatever the reason, most of us haven’t read it, but it is on our shelf of good intentions.