As I have written before, I have long given up trying to be “well read”. Such a task is just too difficult. I don’t read many new books, there are too many old books that I have yet to read, and when you are friends with someone who was a Professor of Literature, you know there’s always going to be at least one person in your acquaintance who could read you under the table (as it were).
However that doesn’t mean I don’t try to at least get to a position where I am able to have a conversation with those who are well read and sound like I am such as well. Actually I’m probably there now (I’m pretty good at faking knowledge). I can chat about Dickens and Austen, or Tolstoy and Dostoyesky with ease. I can sound like an expert on Joyce, and can quote slathers of Shakespeare (so long as I have studied those passages the day before and have also written them on a piece of paper for easy reference).
But there still remain large gaps in my reading history. In fact some very large gaps of the “you haven’t read that?!” kind. So many great, famous books are left on my bookshelf yet to be read, or even worse, still laying in some book store, yet to be bought, that I have had to split these books into two lists (also doing so gives me an easy topic for later should I be stuck for something to write about). So here goes my pre-20th Century mea culpa. I promise to do my best to rectify these failings. In time. Perhaps. If I don’t feel like re-reading something else instead. Or watching a DVD.
This omission carries with it a lot of shame. Firstly (as you will find out next week) I consider Joyce’s Ulysses to be the greatest novel of all time, and to not have read the work on which it is (very loosely) based is a bit silly – especially as I even taught a literature class at uni where I am pretty sure I discussed the links between the two (see what I mean about being good at faking knowledge).
But the real reason for my shame is this beautiful hard cover edition of the great translation by Robert Fagles was a Christmas present – one that I had been giving out none-too-subtle hints about for 6 months prior. And yet, have I read it? Nope. Haven’t even started.
Oh look, I have read parts of The Odyssey – in other translations. I know the stories; but I haven’t actually read them in their entirety. But hey, I’m not alone, the Cohen Brothers based their film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? on The Odyssey, and they admitted they hadn’t read it either – and in true post modern irony, you can now buy a movie edition with the poster of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? as the cover.
This is a big omission. I only bought this copy a couple years ago (I never liked the cover of the Penguin Classics version). It’s a book I am pretty sure I will like.
It’s pretty much the first novel in European literature, so for a fan of novels like me, it is rather odd to have left this one off my have read list. Everything I have heard about this novel makes me want to read it – heck it has even been referenced in The Simpsons – and yet I have never actually felt in the mood to take it down off my shelf and start the long journey with the Man from La Mancha.
A couple years ago J Peder Zane edited a book called The Top Ten – which consisted of asking a stack of authors to list their top ten novels. He then totalled them up to arrive at a master Top Ten list. It’s a fun book to delve into the reading joys of authors such a Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe or Michael Cunningham. Don Quixote came in 11th; and so I know I’ll get to it, but I want to be in a better mood than an “oh I should tick this one off the list” mood. At nearly 800 pages, you have to really want to soldier along with the Don and Sancho; and I’m not there yet.
Now I know I’m not Robinson Crusoe in not having read this book (boom tish… err ok, bad literary pun over now), but despite not having read this novel, I, like everyone else walking upright, feel as though I have. By the time I was 10 I think I knew this story. I’d probably come across it in an abridged school reader version. No doubt I had seen cartoon versions of it. It is impossible to avoid this story – even if all you know is Robinson and his man Friday.
I started reading it last year and was enjoying it for about about 10 pages before I thought, well I’ll read up till the end of the first chapter, then go to sleep. And then I discovered it doesn’t have any chapters. The first part finished on page 56; where his “journal” begins, which then goes till the end of the novel on page 241.
As a rule, I hate novels with no chapters – I need the break so that I can aim to read small bits each night. And I was so annoyed by the lack of chapters that I gave the book up right then and there.
Now this is perhaps the first novel written in English, so I’ll give credit to Defoe where it’s due; but in inventing the novel, it would have been nice if he had also thought to invent chapters. But look, I will give it a go again – because I was actually enjoying those first 10 pages (and my bookmark is still there).
I open the cover and see written on the inside page “1999”. I sigh. Ten years this has now been sitting on the shelf; neglected and ignored. Well not quite ignored. Every now and then I think about getting it down, but sitting on my shelf as it does next to my collection of Dickens, I am more likely to think “oh, Little Dorrit, I should read that”.
So this novel without a hero, is a novel without a reader. In the time since I bought it, the BBC mini-series has been shown on the ABC, and come out on DVD, and the movie version with Reese Witherspoon has been shown in the cinemas and come out on DVD.
I will read this one soon. Like Don Quixote I know I will like it; and once done I know I will feel a bit less guilty when I decide to read one of the Dickens that I have yet to read (do I really need to read The Old Curiosity Shop? After all I know Little Nell dies).
Now this is one I really do want to read. I have started it a couple times – but each time was during a busy time in my life, and I was never able to really get into it. When I start a novel I always like to be able to knock off the first 50 pages pretty quickly – if I know I am too tired to read more than 10, I generally will choose to read some non-fiction work rather than start a new novel.
In Zane’s book, this one came in at number 10. The story intrigues me – as does its position as one of the pinnacles of the 19th Century English novel. The one thing holding me back is that I hated Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss but that was more due to the plot than her writing.
I only recently bought this copy; it was bundled with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and even though I owned a Wordsworth Classic edition, at $11 for the two, I couldn't turn it down – and to be honest I quite like this cover, so this one will go pretty near the top of my will read next list.
And so that’s my five. I didn’t bother with The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron or The Aeniad – though they could have been there. So too could Clarissa or Pamela, though there is no way I would ever bother reading those. And yes I have yet to read Our Mutual Friend or Nicholas Nickleby, but they are hardly Dickens’ best (though I still yearn to read Martin Chuzzlewit). I know I should have read Eugene Onegin by now, but I figure I’ve read Don Juan, so I’m doing ok in terms of 19th Century poetic novels. All in all it’s not too embarrassing – so long as I avoid all university English department staff rooms.
But wait till I get to the 20th Century. Keeping the list to just five will almost be impossible.