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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.