Thursday, March 5, 2009

Of Reading and Gasconading

On World Book Day -- customarily celebrated, as with all language-oriented fake holidays, with malt liquor and sugary treats -- the Guardian reports that people are often guilty of baseless self-promotion:

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four comes top in a poll of the UK's guilty reading secrets. Asked if they had ever claimed to read a book when they had not, 65% of respondents said yes and 42% said they had falsely claimed to have read Orwell's classic in order to impress. This is followed by Tolstoy's War and Peace (31%), James Joyce's Ulysses (25%) and the Bible (24%).
I'll see that ante and raise it in this respect: I have not claimed to have read War and Peace, and truth be told, I don't especially want to. Nothing I've read about it has managed to spark an interest. There, I said it! In public! I'll say it again: I have no particular desire to read War and Peace. I will say I stand ready to have my mind changed on it.

The mention of Ulysses brings up a category not quite captured in this survey. While I cannot claim to have read Ulysses on a sequential, uninterrupted, page-for-page basis, I count it as a book I have read because I studied it in an academic setting and read it in the manner that a heavy academic schedule tends to require of those of us who weren't among the least lazy of students: I read extended passages as assigned (whilst falling behind overall), read the assigned critical materials, and followed the class discussion as closely as anyone else. The discussions were in-depth, and canvassed characters, plot, structure, themes, allusions, and the mechanics of assorted literary maneuvers. It covered the literary, historical, and literary-historical background, and all of the foregoing was supplemented with close readings of passages I had not read on my own.

In the case of Ulysses, I recall all of this adding up to the fact -- if it is a fact -- that Ulysses had something or other to do with Homer's Odyssey. Whatever! I know, right?!?! We did tend to get a little off-track and flighty in literature classes.

Other books in this category include Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights, The Canterbury Tales, and Dante's Paradiso -- the latter a book that is all but guaranteed to disappoint after the experience of page-for-page reading of Inferno and almost making it through every last page of Purgatorio. I read these, I insist upon it. I still bear vivid memories of the experience and corresponding emotional scars.

Norm Geras is bold enough to list several classic books he has never read, and so shall I be; I'll even up the ante by naming books I actually do want to read:
  • Hardy, Tess of the D'Ubervilles
  • Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (despite having managed to convince myself I'll die in the same calendar year I read this entire book -- extra bravery points, right?)
  • Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Shakespeare, Coriolanus (I have had a fresh paperback copy of this for ages and never gotten around to actually reading the entire thing.)

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