Ulysses James JoyceIt starts in school when they give you lists of books to read. I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d already read most of the books on any reading list. Most others were not big deal. Reading a book was not normally a problem for me. After all, I love books.

But literature courses inevitably include a lot of books that I would never read voluntarily. Maybe books that no one would voluntarily read. How about Silas Marner? When was the last time someone read that because it sounded like a fun read?

Despite current trendiness, Jane Austin was nobody’s favorite author in high school. I read it, but I didn’t have to like it. Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austen. Not then, not now. Neither does my husband. We also don’t like the movies made from the books.

By the time I got to college, among the many books I did not read was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only didn’t I read it, I barely got through the Cliff Notes. But I got an A on the paper for my “unique understanding of the characters and motivation.” Good Cliff Notes, eh? I did read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and thought it wasn’t half bad. At least I could discern a plot and everyone in it wasn’t a prig — as they were in Austen’s novels.

I slogged my way through all of Dostoyevsky books. It was voluntary, but I still couldn’t tell you why I did it. Maybe to prove I could?

I read all 1800 pages of Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe because my mother loved the book. She also had me read Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun’s depressing tale of grinding poverty and despair in the Norwegian highlands. I barely made it through Madame Bovary and War and Peace was a non-starter.

Growth of the SoilI never made it through anything by Thomas Hardy. Or Lawrence Durrell. I loved Larry’s brother Gerald Durrell. He was hilarious and wrote about my favorite subjects, animals. I slogged my way through Lady Chatterly’s Lover only because everyone told me it was hot. I thought it was dull. My brother had some books stuffed under his bed that were a lot dirtier and more fun.

I never owned up to not reading those important, literary masterpieces. When the subject came up — which it did when we were students and even for a few years after that — I would try to look intelligent. I’d grunt at the appropriate moments, nod appreciatively.

So yesterday, I was looking at a review I wrote last January about Dahlgren and realized I was lying about literature again. I hated the book. I didn’t merely dislike it. I found it boring, pretentious. It had no plot, no action, and as far as I could tell, no point. I mealy-mouthed around my real feelings because it’s a classic. Everyone says so.

So my question is: who really read that book? Who really loved it? Did everyone pretend to love it because they heard what a great book it was? How many people lie about reading great books when in fact, they never make it past the preface before falling into a coma?

I’m betting it ain’t just me.

Categories: Book Review, Books, Education, Humor, Literature

Tags: , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. I haven’t been able to finish Ulysses and once said I had because I was in a room filled with people who said they had. I was young and thought I would pass for stupid if I said I hadn’t. Retrospectively I wonder if everyone else lied too!


    • I think they probably did. I know ONE person who actually read it, not counting the professor who I assume also read it. Other than her (and she also LIKED it … even more remarkable), not me, my husband, or any of my literary friends got through it. Well, maybe the one who is an English professor. I figure it’s a rule; you have to read James Joyce to get your Ph.D. in English Lit 😉


  2. “Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake.”

    hahahaha, that’s awesome, I wish I could say this about some book I hated. I can’t think of too much literature that I felt strongly enough about to throw it, probably just gave up reading it.

    I LOVED Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. LOOOOOOVED it. I read it right around 22, about the worst time in my life I could have picked it up and soon realized it was having a terrible effect on me so I gave away my copy before I was tempted to re-read it.

    I read several Russian novels, but looking back, I think I know I could never read them again. That kind of masochism is something only young people can manage.


    • I read a lot of stuff when I was young I couldn’t read now. I had a lot more patience back then. I read all of Thomas Wolfe and loved it. I wouldn’t make it through the preface today and wouldn’t want to. Tastes changes, interests change. Hell, my eyes have changed. I can’t read that many pages without getting a headache. Fifteen was a great age for me to read Wolfe, just as 22 was great for you to read Portrait of an Artist. We aren’t the same people we were then.


  3. The Bible. I’ve started it a couple of times. Has a decent plot and lots of good quotes … but overall a tough read.


  4. I love lots of the books you hate. I like to be drawn into more complex emotions.


  5. I’ve given up pretending that I enjoy “classic literature”.
    Does it have decapitations? Vampires? Car chases? No? Not interested.
    But it’s a classic? Says who? Don’t care.


    • Especially vampires. Gunfights. Explosions. A little sex (but let’s not get crazy). Witches. Time travel. Dystopian futures. And the odd zombie. Yeah! You know, if James Joyce had written about zombies, I’d probably read it!


  6. Thank you. I read a lot but have struggled getting through with many of the books you mentioned. I thought it was my lack of understanding or education.


  7. Damn right it isn’t just you, Marilyn – and I did a degree in English Literature! My way of avoiding the dull, the pretentious and the unreadable was as follows: Didn’t go to lectures for two of my courses; read only notes about the books; gave most of the Romantic poets a miss completely. Greats I have not read must, by now, run into the hundreds! When I was an English teacher, my colleagues used to wax lyrical (aka nauseating) about all the Classics they had read. My view has long been that calling anything a Classic is no guarantee that it is actually any good! I mean, Tracey Emin’s bed is a Classic, is it not? Buggered if I’d pay money to look at, let alone buy, THAT! xxx


    • I am grateful for your comments. I always wonder if I’m the only literary liar in the crowd 🙂 A lot of “classics” are, in my humble opinion, unreadable. Stultifying. Why are they still on reading lists? Is the idea to turn kids off to literature? There are good books … many … old and new and those who create these lists should absolutely be required to really read them before forcing kids to read them. James Joyce indeed.


  8. As soon as I read the title I thought of Ulysses! And I’ve never made it through a single Virginia Woolf book, I find her writing insufferable, and then feel vaguely guilty about it so keep trying. I’m a bit of an Austen fan though, and War & Peace. Although I’ll reread The Hobbit any day over either of those.


    • I really TRIED to read Ulysses. I think I got through a page, maybe two. At which point I said “ARGH!!!!” and went to the bookstore to get the cliff notes. Hell, the notes were more than 250 pages and not a thrill a minute either.

      I don’t know if I could read LOTR again (I’ve read it several times), but my eyes are getting old and tired and very long books are not easy anymore. But I do have it as an audiobook and it is one of the best, if not THE best audiobook ever made. The Hobbit too. Take me to middle earth, please. My bag is packed.


  9. I still can’t read Dickens… have done so, but thanks to an early English teacher dissecting it, I cringe all the time. Ditto Thomas Hardy… and D.H. Lawrence never floated my boat either.


  10. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake?

    Sent from my iPhone


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