*”For more than forty years I have been speaking prose while knowing nothing of it”: from “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme”, by Molière, first presented on 14 October 1670 before the court of Louis XIV.
Jodi Kantor wrote “The Literary Critic’s Shelf of Shame” for Slate magazine on 6.3.2001:
“In his novel Changing Places, David Lodge describes a literary parlor game called “Humiliations” in which participants confess, one by one, titles of books they’ve never read. The genius of the game is that each player gains a point for each fellow player who’s read the book—in other words, the more accomplished the reader, the lower his or her score. Lodge’s winner is an American professor who, in a rousing display of one-downmanship, finally announces that he’s never read Hamlet.
…In Changing Places, Lodge’s professor wins the game and loses his job because of it. At least I think he does. I’d tell you for certain, but—blush, stammer—I’ve never, despite my best intentions and highest expectations of satisfaction, read any David Lodge.
I most regret not being able to read the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah in Hebrew—some of the greatest literature sealed off from me.
(Wikipedia): “A trained classicist, Wills is proficient in Ancient Greek and Latin. His home in Evanston, Illinois, is “filled with books”, with a converted bedroom dedicated to English literature, another containing Latin literature and books on American political thought, one hallway full of books on economics and religion, “including four shelves on St. Augustine”, and another with shelves of Greek literature and philosophy.”
Alice Truax, The New Yorker
There are so many omissions in my reading that the word “omissions” doesn’t really seem to cover it; it’s more of a Swiss-cheese type of situation. Among the classics? Well, let’s just pick three: Moby Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sister Carrie (I’m particularly weak on Americans, due to the vagaries of my education). But there is almost nothing that I’ve tried to read and put down. Perhaps because I’m usually in a reading group of one sort or another, which is a very helpful way of overcoming one’s initial resistance to a long book. (Last year, we read Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, which I loved, but which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own.) In any case, I now quite cheerfully admit my ignorance when it comes to the Great Books, and I’m almost wistful for the shame I felt when an Oxford professor and friend of mine once exclaimed, “You can’t be serious: You’ve never read The Romance of the Rose?” I think that I’m more embarrassed now by the contemporary books I feel I should have read but haven’t gotten around to, and on that lengthy list I will also just choose three at random: DeLillo’s Underworld, Roth’s The Human Stain, and Morrison’s Paradise. For the most part, though, my guilt is generalized; I simply wish I read more. For me, it is like going to the gym, a habit that must be constantly cultivated. I console myself with the thought that it is far better to live in a world with too many books than too few.
Judith Shulevitz, the New York Times
OK. Here are two authors I’ve never read a word of: Henry David Thoreau and Evelyn Waugh. I know I should be ashamed, but instead I blame my ignorance entirely on them. Thoreau because he occasioned those unbearable posters put up in classrooms everywhere during the ‘70s—you know, the ones with the boy facing the sunset and the words “March to the beat of a different drummer” (or whatever the phrase is); and Waugh because Anglophiles I know are always congratulating each other on this passage or that one, and I’d rather deny myself the pleasure of reading him than admit that they might actually be on to something.
Carlin Romano, the Philadelphia Inquirer
Before I die, I’d like to know which came first, the War or the Peace. Also plan to get through the Bible some day, since people keep referring to it. These days I feel most guilty about not having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I keep picking it up backward, or opening it and finding blank pages, and then I get frustrated and give up. By the by, don’t forget book pride. I recently read Crime and Punishment for a class. Excellent story. The crime comes first.
Laura Miller, Salon.com
War and Peace is the book I feel most insecure about not having read. Almost as bad as I feel for not remembering a single damn thing from Madame Bovary besides the black stuff Emma vomits up at the end after taking poison. Continental literature is definitely my weakest area—no Magic Mountain, etc.—and I’ll probably never catch up because the prospect fills me with ennui. Whenever I’m feeling inadequate, though, I remind myself that I’ve read The Faerie Queen and usually that does the trick. Everyone has some monstrous, nearly impenetrable book they did manage to finish and I recommend making that a personal talisman.
One of the books I’m ashamed of never having read is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. But what most bothers me is that I have so much trouble finishing novels by Dickens. From line to line, and from sentence to sentence, I think he may well have been the greatest master of the English language since Shakespeare. But despite many repeated efforts, and with a few exceptions (mainly Great Expectations and Hard Times), I always seem to get stuck somewhere in the middle of his major novels, or I lose patience with characters like Little Dorrit, and the famous sentimentality that one is supposed to discount or forgive or understand finally gets me down. Still, whereas I doubt that I’ll ever get around to Musil, I live in hopes that some day I’ll pick up Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House and find myself deriving as much pleasure from the whole as I do from the first hundred pages or so.
Louis Menand, The New Yorker
I have started four times but have never gotten past the middle of the second volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu—and yet (this is the shameful part) this has not prevented me from calling other books “Proustian.”
Anne Fadiman, the American Scholar
I’ve started War and Peace three times but never finished it. I got through Anna Karenina only because I had no other books in my backpack on a long-ago cross-country-skiing trip in Norway and was stuck in a freezing hut for three days with the flu. Thank God for the flu; having both books on my unread list would be so mortifying I wouldn’t even confess it.
Richard Eder, the New York Times
Every time I wandered into the woods in The Scarlet Letter I developed literary poison ivy. Hawthorne remains terra incognita. Also have read absolutely nothing by Balzac, neither in French nor in English or Icelandic translation. But shame? Not really. I’ve always thought that some packages should be left for opening late in life, to fend off senile apathy. Likewise the best age to discover ballet is 70 or 80, an anti-gravitational remedy for increasing downward pull…”