BOOKS I NEVER READ BUT SAID I DID

Today’s Daily Prompt is a duplicate of one which WordPress offered less than two weeks ago. So, here’s something else. It’s about books. We’ll split the difference, okay?


Ulysses James Joyce

It starts in school when they give you lists of books to read.

I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d read most of the books on any list. The remaining few were not a big deal. Reading any book, no matter how thick, was rarely a problem for me. After all, I love books.

But literature courses inevitably include books that I would never read voluntarily. Maybe books that no one would voluntarily read. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that’s the entire point of literature courses — to force you to read books no one likes and maybe no one ever liked.

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. You may lob your stones this way.

Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austin. 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’s books. It was voluntary, but I still couldn’t tell you why I did it. Maybe to prove I could? I think the angst of the characters appealed to my younger self. Teenagehood was very angst-ridden.

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. 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 Chatterley’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 and 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 it? Who loved it? Did everyone pretend because they heard it was a great book? How many people lie about reading great books when in fact, they never make it past the preface?

I’m betting it ain’t just me.



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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

44 replies

  1. I’ve never read Dahlgren, or War and Peace. I haven’t made through all of Dostoyevsky (and I’m not sure I can spell it) but I’ve been reading them slowly this year, enjoying some of them. They do get depressing. I have to admit that I recently (also in the last year) read Silas Marner, just for fun. And I really enjoyed it. So, I’m weird. Some classics I’ve pretended to have read just because … I don’t know … I am sort of hard-wired not to admit I don’t know things. Fortunately I can no longer which ones they are. Brain damage is good for something! ;-

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    • I had a lot of tolerance for long, dull, wordy books when I was a kid. Now? If I’m not enjoying it, I don’t read it. The singular freedom of getting old is you have nothing left to prove to anyone. Besides, as you say, who remembers what we read or didn’t read? Not me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have only just read Pride and Prejudice – actually rather boring with it’s description of everything a young Regency woman needs to know about catching a rich husband (I should have read that before I married my husband who has managed to take all my money and left me destitute). I rather enjoyed the Thomas Hardy books. The absolutely worse book I have ever read was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealand author. It was the Booker Prize a couple of years ago. I thought I would be patriotic and buy it. Big mistake. I have never read a book that I have hated so much. At the moment I am reading The Hunger Games. Not bad actually.

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    • I am no longer classically minded. I’m at the point in my life where I do what I want because I finally CAN do what I want, at least as far as reading goes. If I’m missing something great, OH WELL! I’ll survive!

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      • I just read Jane Austen as I had just watched the miniseries on TV. The brilliant Colin Firth kept me going with the book. The Kiwi book was read as i was curious. The Hunger Games is actually quite good. At least it keeps my attention. Plus seeing the movies has helped a lot.

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  3. I started reading Don Quixjote, but it was long and boring. I dhaven’t read Knut Hamsun’s ‘Growth of the Soil’, but I’ve read ‘Hunger’ – it’s a depressing tale about him being hungry and wandering the streets of Oslo.
    In general i’d say that classics are boring.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I also read Dostoyevsky, and some other Russians. I can’t imagine a battlefield in any era without reflecting on the scenes of disorganization in War and Peace. Otherwise, my reading of classics has been spotty. Jane Eyre brought a tear to my eye; I took a run at Pride and Prejudice when it came as a free e-book and stalled at chapter 4 or so. I’ll get back to it.

    I read two fascinating travelogues. The first was Don Quixote. It took about 80 pages for me to get into it, but then it was a riot. I nearly fell off my seat in the bus laughing at it. Then, by chance alone, came another mega-book that I’d had on the shelf for years – The Pickwick Papers. I decided it was, to some extent, an answer to Don Quixote. Also funny, poignant and philosophical – well worth the read.

    My own book This Moonless Sky owes a lot to those last two books – perhaps too much. It’s long and relies more on wit and thought than suspense. Probably a mistake in this fast-paced era, but the format works for me, if no one else.

    I grew up in Canada and ended up as the top student in the academically required grade 12 French class in my very English-speaking home town. As a prize, the school gave me a book that combined the classic novels Armance and Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal. I started on the first of these, and the complexity of the sentence structure, combined with the density of the vocabulary, threw me back. Over the years, I read a couple of less complicated French-language classics, most notably Une Saison dans la Vie d’Emmanuel, A season in the life of Emmanuel, by our great lesbian-Quebecois writer, Marie-Claire Blais, 1965. Marvellous piece of work about what life was like in one of those traditional Catholic Quebec families with a new baby popping out every year. Also included the first-ever story of RC priests transgressing celibacy with teenaged boys. Little did we know, eh? Finally, this year, 42 years after I received my copy of Stendhal, I have gone back to it, and have enough French in me to make it work. It’s still slow, but I’m enjoying it.

    Those of us who are slow learners can still read the classics, given sufficient longevity.

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    • I remember reading Stendhal and liking the books, though it wasn’t for a class. I think I just stumbled on him as I worked my way through my local library. I was required to read “Les Miserables” in French and astonishingly, I made it. My conclusion then and now is the man needed an editor. Being in love with your own words doesn’t make them more valuable. I personally think a lot of The Classics suffer from lack of editing. Those books are like my terriers before grooming. They go in as smelly, hairy little bushes and emerge as attractive, well-built little dogs. You just have to cut away all that extra fur.

      The Russian authors never knew when to shut up. Some French authors, too. If it weren’t for Maxwell Perkins, a lot of American authors would never have seen publication, most famously, Thomas Wolfe. The manuscript for Look Homeward Angel before editing was some insane number like 10,000 pages. Perkins, for whom there should have been a Nobel Prize in Editing, turned it into a book. That was readable. I know because I read it and when I was 14, I loved it. Couldn’t wade through it now, but tastes change.

      A lot of the classics would never have been published today, not without a lot of trimming, slimming, clarifying, and rewriting. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of bad readers. I think the writers in the old days got away with a lot of bad writing. Many books — including Dickens (almost all of his books) — were written as serials for magazines, so they were heavily padded to stretch them out. THAT is why they are long and overstuffed. They got paid by the word, so they used a lot of them. Yes, there was a story in there, but the stories are like my dogs before grooming. They need a very serious trim.

      I’m too much of a reader to not also be a skeptic too.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Tried to look intelligent” LOL I did that a few times in my life time. Stood there, didn’t have a clue but pretended to know it all. There are a few books I didn’t read, or started and just couldn’t make it through. The tortured us with Goethe and Schiller, Socrates and Plato, Homer and modern stuff. Then we got smart and started a reading club. One of us had to read one book, we met once a week and each one of us had the book review in short form. It was a brilliant idea..helped us out a lot :-). Later on I got more interested and actually read a few of the ones I were suppose to read in school and college. My newest thing is reading the Pulitzer Price winners and I am having a good time so far. Very good and interesting post Marilyn.

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    • My mother was a Pulitzer and Nobel prize reader. That’s how I came to both Romain Roland and Knut Hamsen — both Nobel Prize in Literature winners.

      It think there’s an appropriate for age and stage in life issue with school reading assignments. It doesn’t mean we will never want to read those books, but many of them are not going to grab us when we are 17 or 19. We have neither the experience or interest to enjoy them.

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      • You are right, a lot of books I had to read I didn’t understand, or I just repeated what others had to say. Nowadays I read and I make my own judgement, even if Millions liked it..it doesn’t mean I have to. I love to read, every book gets a chance until page 50, if you don’t have my attention by then…to bad :-).

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  6. When I was younger, I loved all those classic authors, including Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, even Dostoevsky. About a year ago, I decided to re-read some of them, but after so many years of reading murder mysteries and crappy romances, I found I couldn’t wade through the convoluted sentences and story lines in some of the classics. I still love the older stories, but it takes me a really long time to get through them.

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  7. When my youngest was young she did like to read. We tried everything we could to get her interested in books and finally stumbled on “Goosebumps” and she tore through every one that she could get her hands on. Then she graduated to Steven King books. When she was in, maybe 6th grade, my wife and I were summoned to a conference with the teacher.
    The teacher was concerned with my daughter’s reading choices and asked if we knew what she was reading. We said that we did indeed know and that we encouraged it because “She Was Reading”
    She still loves books like that. She just needed to figure out what she liked to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. I love Dostoyevsky. Knut Hamsun was unknown to me until I read a letter from Hemingway saying he was one of the greatest writers along with B. Traven and Beryl Markham. I already loved Beryl Markham so I took Papa’s word — Knut Hamsun and B. Traven were both good (IMO). Joyce? He and T. S. Eliot are, to me, just sulphurous vapors from a grad school seminar in “stuff these legless farts who are my professors pretend to understand.” Jane Austen is just fun; Northanger Abbey is an entertaining parody of the kinds of books people (especially women) actually DID read back then. I liked Mdme Bovary when I read it but I’m sure today I would find it a very different book. I loved Thomas Hardy and when I finished the last book he wrote I cried. Laurence Durrell wrote beautifully about what it means to be an artist — I loved the Alexandrian Quartet.

    As for school? We had to read a lot of stuff that made me not want to read anything more by particular authors such as Dickens (whom I ended up liking all right). Some books are not written for young people and shouldn’t be taught in school like The Old Man and the Sea (it’s for people over 23)…but the axe currently being ground in the school system has a completely different agenda from our time in school. I remember reading The Yearling and kind of liking it. High school? Lord of the Flies, Watership Down, Oedipus Rex, The Oresteia, Aristotle’s Poetics — I don’t remember much else. 🙂

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    • Northanger Abbey is the exception to my Jane Austen rule. I think I was spoiled for Durrell because I read his brother’s memoirs of growing up Larry’s younger brother. It was just so hard to take him seriously. I loved — still love — Cold Comfort Farm. The movie, too. Great literary parody is much underrated as an art form.

      I have mixed feelings about Hemingway. I love some of it, don’t like others. It’s a book by book thing. I read a lot about Maxwell Perkins and got a very difference look at some of our great authors. Interesting. Where is Max when we need him? Oh, right. Dead. Pity.

      I was mad about Thomas Wolfe as a kid. When I got older, I couldn’t get through any of his stuff. I have found that age and stage in life has dictated much of my literary affections. Now, mostly, I want entertainment and I want to end a story smiling. I know there are serious issues, but I read to get away from them, not further in. If that makes me a lightweight, so be it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cold Comfort Farm is hilarious — my high school English teacher (Jr. year) who grew up to be my close friend, gave me the book and I loved it. In fact, Laurence Durrell is (I think) a writer for a certain stage of life but I appreciated that he was good pals with Henry Miller whose work I also liked very much at a certain moment (which is over). I don’t read fiction much at all but one author I really enjoyed recently is Jane Gardam. If you haven’t read anything by her, you might want to check out Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat and a third (it’s a trilogy but they don’t have to be read in any particular order). Really fine writing. Skillful, amusing, wry, tongue-in-cheek and yet sympathetic and articulate.

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  9. There are a ton of books that I should read, but there are a lot of books that I find more fun to read.

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  10. Great post! For a tutorial years ago, I had to read King Lear and write a paper to be read out in class. I left it a bit late so skimmed through it the night before, skipping the subplot entirely. In my paper, I randomly got Edmund and Edgar mixed up, and as I read it out, my fellow students had to helpfully guess out loud which one I actually meant. Then I was invited to explain the relationship between the main plot and the subplot, which made matters worse.

    It taught me a lesson – I have never re-read King Lear, but have never pretended to read anything else to gain a little kudos. Now I freely admit to liking Coronation Street, my local TV soap, which is not the done thing in some circles! I am sure just as many people pretend not to enjoy supposedly low-brow things as pretend to have read high-brow ones.

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    • King Lear is one of the hardest of Shakespeare’s plays to understand, even if you watch it on stage. It’s really based on an old fairy tale/myth, so it makes little sense from a character and plot point-of-view. It’s certainly not a place to start Shakespeare. Maybe Romeo and Juliet, where there is, at least, a story that a kid might relate to — even though they are both foolish children and needed better parental supervision.

      It took me a long time to get to the point where I could admit I don’t like what I don’t like, no matter how many people say they are wonderful. I often wonder if those who praise them — as well as those who criticize them — actually read it at all. I don’t have to lie about it anymore. I’m old. One of the perks of surviving is not needing to prove anything to anyone 🙂

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      • I don’t really like King Lear myself – The Tempest is my favourite. I often quote Cordelia (I love you…) ‘according to my bond, no more, nor less’, which seems to have somehow stuck. Needless to say the reference is met by blank incomprehension and requires a good deal more explanation than it’s really worth.

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  11. The only books I actually enjoyed reading at school were in my German literature class. We read three – one was appalling but the other two were quite interesting plays (and being dialogue, much easier to translate).

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    • I don’t remember much I enjoyed for school reading, but I got surprisingly fond of Elizabethan poetry. Sonnets and such. I memorized a few of them and still can recite them by heart. Funny how that stuff sticks.

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  12. School ruined a lot of books for me. I learnt to dislike William Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters sort of survived. The funny thing that now in a golden oldie age I am reading these books and sort of enjoying them, catching up on what I should have done in the first place. When a teacher says write this or that from the point of view of Mrs. Murdstone or Mr. Darcy then my appetite is spoilt from the beginning. I am now even reading the German classics (in German of course) under the influence of Mr. Swiss who has read them all. I have caught up on Dostoevsky, Tolstoi and however they are called (but not in original Russian, that would be a liitle too much over the top).

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    • I believe if they teach you to love books, you will find your way eventually to everything. Even so, no one likes everything. We all pick and choose what appeals to us which is why there isn’t just ONE book, but millions. The important thing is to get kids to love reading. Everything else will follow automatically. If only schools could “get” that!

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  13. School dissections of literature spolied Dickensand Hardy for me for donkeys years. Couldn’t stomach either.. yet one particular teacher (and the fact we went to see the play live, and I loved it so much I went back the next night andmet Timothy Dalton backstage as I knew the doorman…) opened Shakespeare for me. I’ve read some damned obscure books… and skipped a lot of ‘classics’ because I simply didn’t fancy them.

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    • I like watching Shakespeare. I don’t enjoy reading the plays (but like the sonnets). I believe most plays don’t make great reading unless you are an actor and can make the pictures in your head (no, I can’t, not really). I think school dissection of literature ruined a lot of it for a lot of us. And most of it was total bullshit, too!

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  14. LoL !! In grade 11 we had to read a list of books and then write a review on them. But I found a book that had short reviews of most of the Classics. My popularity doubled in about a month. Know what? I can’t recall any of the books on that list !!?? I think “A Tale of Two Cities” was on there?? I regret my slackard ways now.

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  15. I read Dostoevsky’s books for the same reason… so I could say that I’ve read Dostoevsky. I hate Jane Austen too, and I don’t know why people gush about her books like they’re divinely inspired. I’ve never heard of Dahlgren, so I can’t give an opinion on that.

    I did like Silas Marner though, even as a kid.

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    • The thing is, there are so many books in the world. Issue reading lists, but leave wiggle room so if book A doesn’t work, maybe book B will. I’m pretty sure the true goal of these courses is getting kids to read. Preferably, to keep reading even when school is finished. If they learn to love reading, they will eventually get to the classics all by themselves.

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