Excerpted from The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Chapter Three. “On the Shelf” (PopMatters/Counterpoint, April 2008)
Be totally honest for a moment — just between us. Have you ever pretended to be familiar with a work of literature you haven’t actually read? Have you found yourself joining in conversations about Captain Ahab, Ophelia, or Leopold Bloom, without actually having read Moby-Dick, Hamlet, or Ulysses? Come on — I bet you have. If so, you’re not alone. We’ve all done it, whether it’s to impress a date by agreeing with them about the latest Philip Roth, or to appear blasé by arguing that Dickens is overrated, though we may never have managed to finish one of his novels. It’s odd how many otherwise honest, decent people should feel so insecure about what they haven’t read that they’re willing to lie about it. What for? You wouldn’t pretend to know your way around Chicago if you’ve never been there, or to have tasted ostrich eggs if you’ve never had the chance.
But then, there’s no social assumption that knowing your way round Chicago makes you a more educated person, or that to be truly cultured, you “ought” to have tasted ostrich eggs. When it comes to literature, it’s a different matter. “Classics” like Moby-Dick, Hamlet, and Ulysses are generally considered to be works that all smart, sophisticated people “ought” to have read. And, since most of us like to think of ourselves as smart and sophisticated, we feel we “ought” to have read them, as well.
If your best friend has just finished a great book and thinks you’d enjoy it too, she’ll say you’ve “got to” read it, or you’ll “love” reading it, or you “have to” read it, which all suggest the experience will be pleasurable. But when somebody tells you there’s a book you “ought” to read, it usually means something rather different. “Ought” is used for obligations, things you feel you should do, despite your inclinations: You want to wear pink but you “ought” to wear black; you want bacon and eggs for breakfast, but you “ought” to have granola. In most cases, these are things you need to do for your own good, even though you might not want to. You “ought” to say thank you; you “ought” to call your mother; you “ought” to get going.
Books you feel you “ought” to read aren’t usually books you expect to enjoy, in the short term, at least. Rather, they’re books that will be “good for you” to have read in the long run; they’ll make you more educated, more sophisticated — or, at least, they’ll make you feel that way, which is almost as good. Books you think you “ought” to read are usually books you once started but didn’t finish, books you were supposed to read for a literature class but bought the CliffsNotes for instead, or books some well-meaning friend bought for you that you’ve never got round to reading, though they look impressive on your shelf. In each case, if they were really compelling, don’t you think you’d have read them long ago?
Let me make it plain: There are no books you “ought” to read. Take my advice — if it bores you, if you don’t get it, if it puts you to sleep or gives you a headache, put it down and read something else instead. Even this book: If you’re not interested, stop reading right now! Put it down, get your money back, give it to a friend, or toss it out of the window. Honestly, I won’t mind. There’s no point forcing you to read something you don’t find engaging. The truth is, if you’re not interested in what you read, you’ll get nothing out of it, and you’ll probably forget it the moment you’ve finished. What have you got to gain from struggling to read something against your will? Maybe you’ll be able to catch a reference to the book if it’s mentioned in a movie or play; maybe you’ll be able to hold your own at a fancy dinner party, but then, you could probably do the same thing by just reading the back cover. And let’s face it, these days no one’s going to be less successful or looked down upon because they haven’t read War and Peace.
Illustration by David Meinrath
Most of the books people think they “ought” to read are those works generally known as “literary classics.” These books have a reputation for being difficult to engage with, but it’s important to remember that most “classics” were written for a very different age from ours, and for very different readers from you and me. Before the 20th century, fiction was the main form of public entertainment (and even then, only a few people had access to it). There was, needless to say, no TV, no movies, and no Internet, and very few people actually owned books. What we now call “classic” novels were generally published in installments, or in magazines, so, like today’s soap operas, they could be drawn out for as long as they held the public’s attention. As a result, they couldn’t be closely structured in advance; “plot” (as we know it now) was far less central than it is today, which helps explain why, used to the fast pace of modern media, many people get bored with “classic” fiction, just as they find it difficult to get into silent movies or films with subtitles. It doesn’t mean they’re less smart; it just means they’re used to a different pace and style.
For readers today, it’s a lot more difficult to get hooked by one of these “classics” than by modern writing; their slow, gradual unfolding demands the kind of time and attention few busy people are willing to devote to a relaxing, recreational activity like reading fiction. So the only time most of us ever read these books, or try to read them, is at school or college, when they’re “assigned reading” in mandatory English courses. It’s often said that being made to read literature in the classroom kills the joy of it. What’s less often discussed is how many people continue to harbor guilt and shame about books they’ve never read (and to bluff about reading them, too).
Have you ever wondered why these books are supposed to be so brilliant, when you’ve tried to read them, and found they neither hook you in, nor inspire your curiosity, nor foster your pleasure, nor get you involved, nor keep you engaged? Perhaps you’ve decided that reading “classic” fiction is one of those cultural experiences, like opera, ballet, or avant-garde theater, in which, to really appreciate its subtleties, you have to be an expert, a real connoisseur, because obviously, there are people who (claim to) find these books riveting, compelling, and impossible to put down. And these people can’t all be bluffing, can they?
Well, not all of them, but some might be. There’s a scene in David Lodge’s campus novel Changing Places in which a group of English professors, after too many drinks, plays a game they call “Humiliation,” in which each person names a book he hasn’t actually read (but assumes all the others have), and scores a point for every person who’s read it. In other words, the winner is the person who humiliates himself the most. One of the eminent highbrows reveals that he’s never read Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”; another confesses he’s never been able to get through Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Regained.” The titles get more and more familiar, but the game only ends when one of them, in a moment of drunken honesty, slams down his palm on the table and yells, “Hamlet!” He wins the game, of course, but the next day the news creeps out, ending up as a brief item in the university newspaper, and before long the sheepish professor has been turned down for tenure and forced to resign.
While the scene is obviously exaggerated, like most comedy, it hits on an important truth, which is that nobody’s read everything, even English professors, and it’s very common for people to give the impression — even to genuinely believe — they’ve read far more than they actually have. A lot of literary knowledge is picked up by accretion; you don’t actually have to have read “Paradise Regained”, or “Hiawatha”, or even Hamlet, to be familiar with their plots, characters, and perhaps a few of their famous lines. Similarly, lots of fictional characters have passed into public consciousness as archetypes, metaphors, or embodiments of particular kinds of behavior. By calling somebody a “Scrooge” or a “Don Juan,” you’re not actually claiming to have read the works by Dickens or Molière that feature these characters, just as you wouldn’t assume someone who described their ex-boyfriend as a “Lothario” would necessarily be familiar with Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, the little-known 1703 Restoration drama in which this character appears.
While some people are very conscious of gaps in their literary knowledge, many others are not. In fact, they’re often convinced they’ve read something even when they haven’t, or haven’t really, which raises the question of what it actually means to have “read” a book. Not all the books we read stay with us, perhaps not even most of them, and if you’ve read a book but can’t remember anything about it, how can you be sure you’ve “really” read it? Lionel Trilling once famously told Edward Said that he thought the Columbia University humanities core, one of the early “great books” curricula, “has the virtue of giving Columbia students a common basis in reading, and if they later forgot the books (as many always do) at least they would have forgotten the same ones.”
I remember feeling terribly proud of myself in college for managing to “read” the whole of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene — over a thousand interminable-seeming pages of it — but while I may have sat at my desk with the book in front of me, taken in each word with my eyes, and turned over every page, I remember so little about it that to say I’ve “read” it means nothing at all. (I’m not alone; when he was reading English at Oxford, poet Philip Larkin wrote the following note in his college library copy of The Faerie Queene: “First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Now I know that The Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out.”) On the other hand, there are certain books I can remember so well that, even many years later, I can still recall the texture of the paper, the font, and the look of certain passages on the page.
A few years ago, when discussing Nabokov’s Lolita in an undergraduate class, I was momentarily taken aback when one of my students, in defense of Humbert Humbert, mentioned all the gifts he bought Lolita, including a trunk full of clothes, a bicycle, and a DVD.
Wait . . . a DVD?
“The Little Mermaid,” she reminded me, indicating the reference on her page, highlighted in fluorescent pink. She was right, Humbert does buy Lolita a copy of The Little Mermaid for her birthday, but it’s not a DVD, it’s a book by Hans Christian Andersen, “a de luxe volume with commercially ‘beautiful’ illustrations.” I was a bit shocked to realize that my student knew The Little Mermaid only as an animated Disney movie, but I’ve had so many similar experiences since then that I’m starting to get used to them. Not long ago, one of my smartest students asked me if she could write a paper on “the character of the Cheshire Cat”; when I agreed, I didn’t realize that, knowing nothing of Lewis Carroll, she was planning to write about a Disney cartoon. Just a few weeks ago, when I asked my freshman students what they thought of “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” Angela Carter’s updated retelling of the Beauty and the Beast myth, a number of them accused her indignantly of “plagiarizing from the movie.”
Simply put, the students I teach are far more familiar with movies than with books — and why not? It’s through movies that most people today come to know literary “classics.” Many more people watch films than read books; in fact, cinema today is what literature was to the readers of earlier centuries: the most accessible form of culture (I’d probably have a much better memory of The Faerie Queene if they’d made it into a film). I’d far prefer my students were familiar with a movie version of something than not knowing it at all. It works both ways — I was pleasantly surprised, not long ago, when my whole class proved coolly knowledgeable about the history of Troy (they’d just seen the Brad Pitt movie, it turned out) — a nice contrast to the student who, when I asked him which Dickens he’d read, replied confidently: “Charles.”
If you can manage to get hooked by a classic novel, by all means go ahead and read it, but if not, remember, you can always watch the movie. There are some tremendous film versions available, like The Little Mermaid, on DVD. My personal favorites include Robert Z. Leonard’s Pride and Prejudice, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Jack Conway’s A Tale of Two Cities, and James Ivory’s Howard’s End. There are also some great television adaptations you can order from Netflix, including first-rate versions of the best-known works of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and E. M. Forster, all particularly recommended for anybody who’s having trouble with the originals.
Some especially interesting movies have been made from the works of Shakespeare. While Shakespeare’s poetry is the best of its kind, I know a lot of people find the archaic language difficult to understand, and this often prevents them from appreciating its power. If you have a problem with Shakespeare, I suggest you pick up a modern translation, and then, once you’ve got a sense of the plot (not a difficult task — Shakespeare isn’t really about the plot), find a good movie version to get a feel for the language, then try the original again. Particular favorites of mine — all loyal to the word and spirit of the original, and visually compelling in their own right — are Franco Zeffirelli’s dark Hamlet, Roman Polanski’s blood-drenched Macbeth, Michael Radford’s lavish Merchant of Venice, and Julie Taymor’s apocalyptic Titus.