BOOKS WE PRETENDED TO READ

We are watching a show called “Shetland” which to no ones surprise, is set in the Shetland Islands. A cop show, but great scenery and an accent I can only sometimes follow. One of the characters is staring into a book. It’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” James Joyce. His daughter calls and he tells her he’s reading a book.

“What book?” she asks.

Finnegan’s Wake,” he says.

“Dad,” she says. “No one reads Finnegan’s Wake. We all pretend we read it.”

Garry nods. I nod. This is a big one on the long list of books we say we read, but didn’t. Some of us are still lying about it. I never trust anyone who says they read Ulysses, much less Finnegan’s Wake. Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Who needs Homer?

These books were part of a course. College, usually, but some were part of high school. We had to read them. It was compulsory.  We couldn’t do it. We tried but got stuck a few pages in. If we couldn’t get the gist of it from “Classic Comics,” there were Cliff notes. The one for Ulysses was more than 300 pages long. That was the moment when I really missed Classic comics because they also had pictures. Some of my deepest reads were Classic Comics.

I read it in French. So there.

It begins in school when they give you lists of books to read over the summer. I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d already finished the books on my list. The remaining few were not a big deal. Reading a book, no matter how thick, was rarely a problem for me. After all, I love books.

Literature courses inevitably included books that I would never read voluntarily and in some cases, at all. Maybe these were 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 possibly 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. These days, I feel guilty about the fish.

There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austin. Not then, not now. Neither does Garry. We also don’t like the movies made from the books.

Dickens. Another author I couldn’t wrap my head around

By the time I got to college, among the many books I did not read was James Joyce’s Ulysses. I followed it up by not reading Finnegan’s Wake. 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 Dostoevsky’s books. Voluntarily, but I couldn’t tell you why. To prove I could? I was young and they were deep. The angst of the characters appealed to me. Teenagehood was angst-ridden. I read Les Miserables. The whole thing. In French. I think I even liked it. I also read Camus in French. I must have understood the language a  lot better back then than I do today.

This is the book, without the music

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. And they had pictures.

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 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? Or the book flap?

I’m betting it isn’t just me.

41 thoughts on “BOOKS WE PRETENDED TO READ

  1. I read Ulysses, or gave it a try. I really persevered with half of it trying to discover the meaning in the pages and I never finished it. The illustrated classics are a wonderful blast from the past. I would go to our famous Sunday morning market in Petticoat Lane with dad and he would always buy me comics. There was always a Classics Illustrated amongst them and I devoured them. I wish I still had them all. They would so take me back to childhood days.

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    • I wish I had them too. They got me interested in a lot of books I would otherwise never have read. And they are worth a LOT of money now! Shocking how all those comic books are really expensive. If ONLY I had saved them!

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      • I heard that they were now quite valuable. I don’t know what happened to mine, but if they still existed I can imagine that mum and dad just left them in our old house when it was pulled down. I lost a lot of childhood memories that way.

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      • What a great post!! It’s also a great conversation piece between friends who don’t mind being truthful.

        No, I never read “Ulysses”. I did see the Steve Reeves film version.

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  2. I read a lot boring books in the ‘classics’ section in a library in France… books I would never otherwise have entertained…simply because reading in English was more relaxing than reading in French and I had read everything else they had… even in their archive.
    But there are a lot of classics I have not read, nor am I likely to. And to this day, though I understand the brilliance of his portraiture of his times, I still cannot read Dickens. He was spoiled for me early on by dissection in class and I never recovered. I read only those books of his that I was forced to read.
    Lawrence I found boring and only read as he was one of the very few ‘not until you are older’ books on my mother’s shelves. On the other hand, I actively enjoy Lord Lytton… even though his style is as cumbersome and wordy as you can get.
    These days I read a lot of non-fiction… and for fiction I go to children’s books or fantasy more often than not, I’m old enough not to pretend otherwise.

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    • I have never managed to get into Dickens other than a few short stories. Anything longer and it’s like a sleeping pill. Over and out. Where is it on a night like this when I really could use it?

      I did eventually get around to Melville and was surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. That was another one that was so dissected in school, I had no interest in reading it … but one day, with nothing else to do, I picked it up and read it. A little slow, but probably was pretty exciting in its day.

      A lot of the “classics” were probably better when they were written, but to me, anyway, they are tired today. I’m not all that interested in the manners of Victorian England … or Victorian U.S.A., either. I love Shakespeare — on stage — but I don’t like reading plays. It made getting through dramatic lit difficult. Garry like plays, probably because he wanted to act and he’s a ham.

      I do think that maybe it’s time some of those classics got retired. It’s hard enough to get kids to read these days, but making them read books that tedious isn’t going to get them interested.

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      • There is a place for the classics, even in schools, but a way of teaching through them that sparks interest instead of creating a horror of them would be good. Dickens would be great in a history class, rather than dissecting in in literature…

        But there are so many excellent works that would benefit youngsters in more practical ways than studying in dead era…

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        • Dickens was a very important guy historically and you’re right, he belongs in history class. In the US, we’ve got a handful of authors whose work sparked major changes in national policy. But at least in this country, there is little history taught at all. Everyone memorizes which president held which war. Who fought, who died the most and we always won.

          The rest of the world? One swift passing view and whoosh, gone. We don’t even take the time to teach basic civics, which is why so many of our kids have never looked at the constitution or Declaration. I’m pretty sure more than half of the teachers have never read a real history book, either. Of, for that matter, a book on grammar!

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          • Writers can and do spark enough revolt against injustice that nations are changed…but they too are of their time, perhaps, and no longer speak to the youth of later generations when the balance has been redressed.

            The focus of history in schools here has changed over the last decade or so and with much controversy. Personally…and idealistically…I would like to see a global history taught that highlights both the successes and failures of nations so that children get an unbiased view of historical figures and decisions. I know that is never going to happen and worry that many of the real lessons of the past are being glossed over or expunged.

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            • That is definitely true, here. The stuff they teach in school is not merely lightweight, it also frequently wrong. Factually, culturally … in any way that matters. Somewhere along the line, the pressure to produce mathematicians and scientists made history and literature the subject matter of the mentally “weak.” The “arts” are no longer taught in school. I mean that literally. Many schools don’t teach art or music or anything related to them. To me, that is a tragedy and we won’t know how much of a tragedy until we bring up a generation without art.

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              • I agree… it is a long time ago here that anything other than basic music became an extra, often paid, and only for those who displayed talent. Art still happens, thank goodness, but even in my day was frowned upon as a subject for older children. I well remember ‘Oh, we don’t do that here dear… how about Latin?’

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                • Art makes us human. Ancient Chinese art included stuff for the palace and the wealthy, but they also made art for peasants and people who could barely scratch a living from the ground. They recognized that everyone needs art. It’s not only something for the wealthy. I’ve always thought that thousands of years ago in China, they showed a recognition of the human condition that the west has yet to grasp.

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  3. Our english teacher in high school had a thing about Dickens, and she managed to suck all the life out of Tale of Two Cities by dissecting every.damn. chapter, one day at a time. We had word lists, we had discussions, we had to take note of the ‘omg coincidences’ that he peppered the book with, and then at the end there were spelling tests and on and on and on…I have never been able to read it since. Thank you, Mrs. Emerson.
    In college our English instructor assigned each of us one author to read, all the books, and then report back. I got stuck with Alberto Moravia. I was so bored with his books (allegories, I found out later) I gave an extremely negative but detailed report, and picked up two dates after class, because of my delivery. Lit. hath its perks.

    I read somewhere that Don Quixote is the most unread classic ever written and I can believe it. I’ll bet Ulysses is, too.

    As a kid I LOVED the Classics Illustrated, and it was from them I read much of Poe–the illustrations scared the bejabbers out of me, especially the Pit and the Pendulum. Give a child a quarter and he’ll spend it on candy. Give him an Illustrated Pit and the Pendulum and he’ll scream in his sleep for six nights running.

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    • For me, it was the one where he gets walled up in the wine cellar. I get the shivers thinking about it now. Ah, right “Cask of Amontillado. Never tried the wine. Afraid someone would wall me in a basement.

      Dickens seems to be the author most dissected in every school Also for us it was Sale of Two Titties. I watched the movie, the one with Dirk Bogard. By then, there were no more Classic Comix. Pity about that!

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  4. I read that, and Seven Gables, and they really weren’t all that bad. But even the so-called classics were pretty awful–but considering what people had for novels, they were defintely a cut above “The White Feather’ and Mrs. Worthy’s Dilemma. I read Ivanhoe when I was about 13, and at the time it was great fun.

    To be fair, Dickens wrote many of his books as newspaper serializations, a chapter at a time, and since he was paid by the word, you can be sure he piled on the descriptive passages.

    Whoever up there said they didn’t like Jane Austen, come sit by me. i think you have to be born liking her, and frankly I don’t get the humor, the style, the endlessness. it’s a bit too-too.

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    • And SO priggish and mannerly and sort-of “upper, upper” you know? It was a style of life that not only did we not live, but which I think would have had me on a boat heading to North American. Priggishness and way too many manners, fans, and gossip.

      I’m very into context. A book that isn’t very interesting or exciting now might well have been something very different in its time. A few books really do outlive their time, but many “classics” don’t. And a lot of the real classics are “too adult” to teach in schools. Faulkner might get more pulses moving than Lawrence or Hardy or Dickens.

      I always loved Louisa May Alcott’s characterization of Nathaniel Hawthorne, though she said the real guy was much grimmer than Laurie.

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  5. I’d have to agree with you about James Joyce. I think we studied Portrait of an Artist.
    I read a lot of the Russian novels and plays. One book that really horrified me and has stayed with me was “I Survived Hitler’s Ovens” by Olfa Lengyel. I consider it a classic and a must read for all children. It was a descent into pure evil that we must never let happen again.
    Leslei

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  6. It takes a gifted teacher to inspire kids to the Classics. But mainly that notable chore rests with of parents. Most of them were likely watching Hee Haw instead of PBS.

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        • There is great stuff. I, for example, love Shakespeare … on stage. NOT in print. I hate reading plays. But Garry likes reading plays. He can hear them acting in his head, but I need to see it. I loved Dostoevsky, but not Tolstoy. I loved Thomas Wolfe, but couldn’t stand Hardy or Austen. And I couldn’t make any sense out of James Joyce. Taste is specific. We like what we like and there’s no figuring why. And my taste has changed enormously with time. The things I read when i was young — I probably couldn’t read now. I’m different, so the books are different, too.

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  7. I guess that proves i’m no literary buff – i have never read a single book mentioned in the post.

    I was an avid reader at school but my thing was science and especially science fiction. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Anthologies of short stories i read by the truckload.

    I’m English born and partly bred but i could never get Shakespeare, it was like he did not speak in the same language as me. Dickens i could follow but was too dreary and depressing to read more than a chapter of any work.

    love.

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    • Shakespeare DOESN’T speak the same language as us, but if you see it on stage, you hear it and it is different. His plays are MUCH better performed than read.

      As for the rest of is, if you didn’t do literature in college, you missed all of that. I did read a mountain of other stuff, just not that particular stuff. I also read all the sci fi and fantasy books too. I think I’ve read everything, including a huge amount of non-fiction — history, science, astronomy, earth science. Reading one thing doesn’t exclude others. But at least you read .

      I meet a lot of people who have never read a book. Not any book. Never. That IS scary. Because if you don’t read, how do you learn?

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        • They learn very little, is the other answer. Even if they learn EVERYTHING there is in school, if you don’t do some of your own learning, you are at best, literate, but ignorant. I don’t think school was ever — even now — expected to be the total sum of human learning.

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  8. I’ve always thought people like James Joyce became ‘classics’ because the literati weren’t game to say what a load of dreary, pretentious nonsense it was in case they were missing something, and their literati peers accused them of ignorance or lack of perception.

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