I haven’t read Price and Prejudice. Ever. I haven’t read War and Peace, either. I’ve read Ulysses (of James Joyce fame) and Jane Eyre, but there are some glaring gaps in my mental literary library.
The absence of these books from my bedside table over the past however-many years has not been intentional and it certainly hasn’t been unnoticed by yours truly. Books like Heart of Darkness and Crime and Punishment simply haven’t made it from the bookshelf to the bedside table to my lap … and not for lack of trying. I own a lot of contemporary and classic books that are placed in that unique position known as “books you should have read” which I’ve bought with every intention of reading. One day.
So, how does a person finish high school, get a degree in literature, teach English, get a Masters in literature, and still never get around to reading a single novel by Dickens?
I managed to get through high school and university (the undergrad part, anyway) by doing the bare minimum. I am very good at talking about books I haven’t read – in fact, I’ve written essays on them (The Name of the Rose, I’m looking at you). I’ve even taught books I didn’t actually read – who has time to read when you have 93 poorly written essays in desperate need of red pen?
There are lots of lists of “books you should have read” if you Google it, most of which include classics, contemporary “classics”, philosophical and religious manifestos, and key science texts that have altered our perception of the world around us. My personal “to read” list tends to be compiled along the lines of books that are about topics I’m interested in, genres I enjoy getting lost in on a Sunday afternoon, the occasional book recommended to me despite not being something I’d usually read, and books that have influenced other books that I’ve loved therefore I hope to enjoy them, too.
I do believe that classic books are important to read … eventually. On the odd occasion that I’ve opened David Copperfield I’ve revelled in the language … and never quite managed to get back to it after putting it down to make a cup of tea or … go off to read something else. The current abundance of YA fiction means I have a constant flow of easy-to-read entertainment that, for a long time, was directly relevant to my area of study. A typical YA novel takes me two hours-ish to get through. The really good ones stay with me, the others simply help me pass the time.
I’m not proud of the gaps in my “books I’ve read” list. Actually, I’m quite ashamed. I’m confessing this terrible tale today – the 29th February – because it’s the day that only exists sometimes and therefore I can pretend it never happened if someone wants to challenge my literary merits in the future.
It’s possible that I’ve confessed to not reading certain classics in the past, but please consider this my confession. A confession of a lazy book worm who has every intention of getting through the classics … one day … but hasn’t yet opened Vanity Fair despite owning three copies of the dear little thing.
Several months ago I was conversing with a lecturer in the English faculty of a university when the topic turned to Victorian literature.
“Gosh,” she groaned, “the other faculty make fun of my lack of knowledge of Victorian literature. They can’t believe I’ve never read what they consider to be core classics.”
” … You’ve … never … ” I don’t know what to say. Her eyes opened wide with embarrassment as the realisation of her words dawned on me. Do I confess that I, too, haven’t read such novels? Do I tell this woman, this person I revere and wish to impress, that I’ve never touched the so-called core classics, either?
“I mean, it’s just not been the focus of my work,” she starts to explain, “I read novel after novel every day, I just – ”
“You know what? I understand,” I said. And I do.
Ask me about dystopian landscapes in YA fiction. I wrote my dissertation on post-apocalyptic fiction just before it became “cool”.
Start a discussion about the merits of sexually active teens in contemporary texts with me. I have some pretty strong opinions about representations of sex and teen pregnancy in YA fiction, and I’d love to know yours.
Tell me what your favourite genre is and let’s compare. I’d love to get into a genre I’m not familiar with – maybe we can exchange books?
But please, don’t ask me what I thought of The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read that, either.