January 29, 2009

Glaring Omissions

It seems only fair that after exposing my students' shocking ignorance of Hopkins not long ago, I should come clean about some of the many gaps in my own reading experience. I'm inspired by the frank admissions (and often compelling justifications) posted by the contributors at The Millions, including Emily Wilkinson's disavowal of "burly man-authors" (the excerpt she includes from Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses is certainly enough to keep him on my "not reading" pile indefinitely!) and Kevin Hartnett's admission that he has made many "false starts" with the modernists, including Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (hey, me too!).

There are always too many things to read, so one issue this kind of exercise raises for me is why a particular author or title matters as an omission. Sometimes (especially for an English professor) ignorance is the problem: you really should know about someone influential or innovative or great in a particular tradition so that you understand the genre or period well and can justify speaking on it as any kind of expert. Sometimes (for any reader) you believe your intellectual, aesthetic, or emotional life will be enriched by a particular reading experience. Sometimes you're curious to see what the fuss is about. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself.

In my own case, I have glaring omissions that fall into all of these categories. The books I feel obligated to catch up on for professional reasons are really the least interesting to reflect on: canonical stuff I've just never gotten around to, partly because I do so much rereading of the big ones I routinely teach. As a Victorianist, I really should read the Dickens novels I don't know, including Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Old Curiosity Shop. I should probably read some Thackeray besides Vanity Fair (I did read The History of Henry Esmond once, but I've repressed it). There are a lot of Trollope novels I haven't read yet (I think I've read 18, but when you remember he wrote 47, that's not impressive), and some Hardy (I really don't enjoy reading Hardy, sigh). And there are all kinds of "lesser" novelists I've never touched, including Charlotte Yonge, George Meredith, and Disraeli (shhh, don't tell). My concern here is almost totally about my credibility as an 'expert' on the 19th-century novel. I don't in fact feel I'm missing out much as a reader--though I'd be pleased to be surprised about that. In earlier fiction, I never finished Tristram Shandy--but in my defense, I've read not just Pamela, but Pamela II, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. I'm curious about some of the Romantic women novelists I have read about but not read for myself--but not really curious, because I've read excerpts and they often strike me (as the lesser Victorian novelists do) as writing books that are more stimulating as cultural artefacts than as, well, books to read.

There are a lot of 20th-century novelists I haven't read. My professional conscience bothers me about the modernists, but I'm morally certain I would need support to get through Ulysses, never mind Finnegan's Wake, so my secret ambition is one day to audit my brilliant colleague Len Diepeveen's Joyce seminar and see how it's done. Woolf I admire wholeheartedly as a critic and essayist, but so far as a novelist she eludes me. Unlike Joyce, however, whom I regard as an obligation, Woolf draws me personally because of what comes across as the beauty and clarity of her mind in her other writing, and because of what I've read about her novels and what they reach for. Also, some of the other readers I know and love best are passionately devoted to her: if she's their friend, one day she'll be mine too.

Moving further into the 20th century, I lose my sense of what's an obvious omission, except perhaps Salman Rushdie. I've read none of his novels; I don't expect to like them--not my kind of thing--but I might be surprised. I think Iris Murdoch is the mid-century author I'm most interested in trying, largely because what I've read about the philosophical reach of her approach to the novel. I feel as if I've read a decent amount of contemporary British fiction (Ishiguro, McEwan, Zadie Smith, and so on), but I'll be teaching a new survey course for the department next year (Brit Lit 1800 to the Present) so no doubt, as I prepare for it, I'll be learning about the unknown unknowns that are in fact serious gaps.

I've stuck to British literature so far, but in terms of my own enrichment, I think the omissions I most regret and hope to remedy are in the French and Russian novel. I have my sights set on Tolstoy at the moment: I read War and Peace long ago, but I don't think that counts, so I am very happy to have received a handsome new edition from my Christmas wish list. The posts on Balzac at Wuthering Expectations whetted my appetite for some of that, I haven't read Proust, and I have read no Dostoyevsky either.

As Archdeacon Grantly would say, Good Heavens! If I keep this up, they'll probably revoke my tenure, my degree, and my driver's license. Now I feel I'll have to post a long list of things I have read, just to ward off criticism. (Also, I suddenly regret having spent so much time reading obscure works by mediocre 19th-century historians....speaking of which, all you smug Woolf-reading Sterne experts, how much Agnes Strickland have you read?) But if they ever read this, my students will probably feel just fine about what they haven't gotten around to yet.

What about you, Dear Readers? Anyone want to 'fess up? I can't promise absolution, but given what I've admitted to, you know you won't end up looking bad by comparison.


Emily Colette Wilkinson said...

A much more thoughtful piece than our squibs at the Millions, particularly mine. I think that if you've made it through Sir Charles Grandison AND Clarissa that buys you about 15 passes on any great books from any era. (I just finished a Ph.D. in 18th century literature and did not even attempt Grandison.) Also, I think that it honors the spirit of Tristram Shandy only to read part or parts of it and have a friend who tells students to dip in and out of it if it is the first time they're reading it.

I was actually very taken (and surprised to be so) by Rushdie's Midnight's Children, though I've had trouble with others. And Murdoch is all you intuit--The Bell my favorite.

Bookphilia said...

I've been thinking about the glaring gaps in my own reading so it's funny that you posted this.

My gaps: any drama, in any language, written after 1630 or so. ANYTHING French: I've read Madame Bovary and some stories by de Maupassant and that's it. The modernists, what I've read of them, make me tired and depressed to think of.

But about your Brit lit 1800-present, I would like to make a recommendation for something completely non-canonical: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's a phenomenal book that made me realize that "post-modern" doesn't have to be "horrible".

David said...

I sometimes play this game with myself: what is the greatest book I've never read? Well, how would I know?

I'm not a scholar, so I have no expertise to bolster or defend. A few years ago I realized that I was well past the mid-point of my reading life, and there were many books I wanted to reread before my eyes gave out on me. Much of my reading is now devoted to rereading, which doesn't leave me with much time to take on new big stuff. What new books I do read are often in Italian, because reading novels in that language gives me great pleasure. As I get older, I think less about filling in gaps and more about pleasure. I'm thinking of Montaigne here: "It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully."

In any case, one good confession deserves another. I have not read all of Chaucer's Tales. I have never read Jane Austen. I have never read Emily Bronte. I have never read Zola or Balzac. I never finished Ovid's Metamorphoses and Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Beyond all this, there are the gaps I fear more than important unread books. Those are the gaps in memory, the books I've completely forgotten. Maybe some of them should have been forgotten. If I want to get back to books I've long cared about, I can't afford too many more forgettable books. But, hey, there should be time enough for reading Jane Austen and, say, rereading Middlemarch.

David said...

One more thought, if you don't mind. The second semester has just started this week, and I have a new crop of students. I have my students write briefly about their favorite books. I was reminded, all over again, that some of my immigrant students have never read a book. Some politely raise their hands and ask, "Mr. E., what if I never read a book? What do I write?"

I assure them that there are other students who've never read a book, and then talk to them a little about how to choose their first book. It makes me a little sad to think someone 16 years old has never read a book, but it's also exciting to see a student read his or her first book in your classroom.

This may be hard to grasp, but some students were never read to as children and don't even really know what a children's book is. There are gaps--and then there are gaps. So I try to remind myself: what a privilege it's been to have had the time to read many books over a lifetime.

La Franglaise said...

I think Rushdie is interesting coming from the Victorianist point of view - I've read Midnight's Children, and the structure is very much a Victorian three-decker, with the coming-of-age story to top it off.

I'm still working on my MA, but I'm also from Qu├ębec and educated in French, which means that I have a lot of gaps that wouldn't occur in English-educated Canadians, like Dickens (only read 2) and Bronte (I still haven't touched Jane Eyre, shame shame shame!), and of course a bunch of poetry.

I concur with your dislike of Hardy - Dr. Mitchell here at UVic is giving a seminar on him this semester, and all my Victorianist friends are in it but for me... I didn't want to feel like hanging myself by the end of the semester.

It makes me feel better about my own gaps seeing that seasoned professors have them too... thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

As a lowly MA student you have no idea how heartening it is to know that even Professors haven't read everything!

So here's my confession I'm studying Victorian Studies and I've never finished Vanity Fair. I know, I know, I know. I will, I promise.

Interesting that you say you don't enjoy reading Hardy. I seem to go from one extreme to the other. *LOVE* Jude the Obscure, The Woodlanders, and Tess. Come out in hives at the thought of re-reading The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd.

JRussell said...

(Not a confession)! I am reading for a 20th C British survey course I will eventually be teaching, and at the moment I find Muriel Spark more engaging and entertaining than Murdoch. But for me Graham Greene is the preeminent British writer of the mid-20th century. I haven't read any one else who for example makes wartime London so vividly real.

Unknown said...

What a fun thread! We all remember the David Lodge novel where a professor is humiliated -- and I think eventually loses his position -- for admitting to having never read Hamlet . Slate has a related story at http://www.slate.com/id/101969/

To my confessions... Jane Eyre might be my most embarrassing gap. Nothing against it; just so many books... In my own period, I have to admit that D.H. Lawrence always leaves me a little "meh." So, I've done my professional duty there, but no more.

Rohan Maitzen said...

First off, I think we have a winner with Jane Eyre! How did you ever avoid it? I used to feel I had trumps in any round of Humiliation because I hadn't read Heart of Darkness (I've read it now).

English Teacher: Your remark about students who have reached 16 and never read a book is important and poignang. I grew up around books, and my children are doing the same; it's too easy to take that for granted as a good in itself. When I worked as a literacy tutor one of my students, a lively little fellow of about 8, lived in a house that had no reading material around except the daily paper. I struggled a lot to find something that would engage him; he finally fell completely in love with Garfield, which I figured was as good a first step as any.

Kristy and La Franglaise--your professors are just that much further down the path of microspecialization than you. Read widely while you can!

I'm making notes of the suggestions, especially for the contemporary British category.

JaneGS said...

The gaps in my canon-reading are enormous, but the one I hope to rectify soon is Sir Walter Scott. I have never read a Scott novel, and since so many of my favorite authors were Scott readers I feel that I should put Waverley high on the TBR list.

My current approach to reading is to work along threads--I did an Austen to Shakespeare to Ovid thread a few years ago; I'm currently working my way through Gaskell and Bronte and Eliot.

I've also discovered gaps due to time since last read. For example, I've read Vanity Fair only once and so long ago that I can barely say with confidence that I've read it.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I think I might write about this on Monday. Your post has spurred thought.

In English lit, Humiliation #1 is Middlemarch; in American, The Scarlet Letter; in French, Les Miserables.

Heart of Darkness - that was a good Humiliation. It may have been the single most assigned book in my undergrad English department, unavoidable.

Also: Pamela II! That's where I draw the line. No way, never.

Unknown said...

That's an interesting observation about "single most assigned book." In my first year here, I put Wuthering Heights on my sophomore prose course. (I didn't say I'd read no Brontes!) Anyway, I was younger and had much more hair, and I could sometimes slip into the queue before class without attracting notice. "Monk wants me to read Wuthering Heights , I overheard some kid say one day. "Well, this is the fourth class I've taken with that book on the syllabus, and no one has made me read it yet!"

Sometimes things fall between the cracks. I was in grad school before I, too, got to Conrad. But I wonder if we sometimes push them there by insisting on them? The deluge of heavily selected Atwood in my undergrad courses sated me for so long that I was some time coming back...

Rohan Maitzen said...

Speaking of American lit, I was going to identify Moby Dick as a glaring omission...but then I wondered if something fits into that category if hardly anybody else has read it either.

Craig, I think you have a point about the resistance that builds to our very insistence on something's importance. I had a similar response to HoD when I findally did decide to teach it in a Victorian survey class: the students were annoyed to have it served up yet again. While I think it can be even better to study something again than to study it just once, clearly there's a point of diminishing returns.

AR: But don't you wantto know how Mr B feels about breastfeeding?

Sophronisba said...

I've never read The Great Gatsby, and the only Virginia Woolf I've read is The Voyage Out. No Joyce, no Bellow. I've not read Crime and Punishment nor War and Peace.

I do recommend you pick up Nicholas Nickleby some day. Once you get past the first few chapters it's the funniest Dickens by a mile, in my opinion. I reread it last summer and was pleasantly surprised at how well the humor still held up. Also second the recommendation for Cloud Atlas. And for something brand new--Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia (which would make an interesting companion to Cloud Atlas, now that I think of it).

maitresse said...

Oh, it is such a relief to hear there's stuff in your area you haven't read. But to be fair, Victorian novels are whoppers. Then again, you can kind of skim them in a way you really skim modernist novels. They're thinner because they've been pared down!

I have to confess to a huge gaping hole where basically all of American literature exists. I don't know what to say. I'm ashamed to say I'm thoroughly uninterested in my countrymen. The only ones I find readable are the ones who moved to Europe.

My other big confession is I've never read Madame Bovary. I'm so embarrassed about that. I will get around to it one of these days but just don't have time right now-- I have a big stack of 30s women writers to read for my dissertation-- Rosalind Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Vera Brittain, Sylvia Townsend Warner...

maitresse said...

I meant to say-- in a way you *can't* really skim modernist novels. D'oh.