This New Year’s Day I took a hard look at books that for years have waited patiently for me to read them. Most of us who love literature carry a mental list of titles and authors we plan to read some day, and for the first time in my life, I looked at my own list and realized that some books on my own list will never be read. It’s not just a question of time: I could by force of will find the hours to do the reading, and though I’m in my mid-60s, I may still have time to undertake even a massive reading project like the Durant set mentioned below.
No — it’s not time that hinders me, but my own flaws. In Why Read?, Mark Edmundson tells of a Columbia University English professor who at the end of each semester gave an examination asking his students two questions: What book in the course did you most dislike? What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you?
For the last three years, I have given this same test to my Advanced Placement Literature students. The question usually comes as a shock to them. Those who contended that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury “sucked,” a judgment they offer to their friends and not to me, must now examine what personal flaws kept them from appreciating a book that most critics have called a classic.
Now it’s time for me to take the same test here. Below are some works of literature that I now know I will never read, unless I land as a castaway on some desert island with only these books in hand. My failure here does indeed reveal some of my own weaknesses both as a reader and as a human being.
The Harry Potter Series. I thought I might as well horrify some of you right off the bat. My children loved and still love these books, nearly all of my students have avidly read them, and the books have become such a part of the culture that words like Muggles, Hogwarts, Voldemort and Dumbledore have entered our everyday language. Twice I have picked up the first volume, begun my reading, put it aside and then forgot to come back to it. Flaw: my failure here stems from my dislike of fantasy as a genre. With the exception of Tolkien’s work, I have no interest in reading about alternate worlds. This is unfortunate, as I have missed some great opportunities to learn more about the human condition than those presented in reality-based fiction.
Les Miserables. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece has wonderful passages and a dramatic storyline. I just now picked it up, flipped it open and read a fine paragraph on the love shared by Marius and Cosette. Unfortunately, I watched the movie starring Liam Neeson. (I tried watching the musical, but couldn’t stand it. Quelle horreur! Some of you are doubtless gasping. What a clod!) To read 900 pages of fine print when I already know the story demands too much of me. Flaw: I now need some element of suspense to read fiction. Once long ago I read fiction not only for plot, but for style as well, to learn how to write with some sense of rhythm and grace. Somehow that desire has slipped away.
The Story of Civilization. Will Durant, aided in the later volumes by his wife Ariel, wrote this series in the middle of the twentieth century. It is magisterial in style, majestic in its outlook, just and fair in its political and religious evaluations. For 20 years, The Story of Civilization has sat on my shelf, all those thick volumes, waiting for me. Though I use it for my teaching at times, and though the writing engages me every time I dip into one of the books, I know in my heart of hearts that Will, Ariel and I will not be spending long, pleasant evenings together. Flaw: sloth. Here are books I would enjoy reading, here are books that would teach me many things and give me a measured view of human history, yet my own laziness keeps me from beginning. One look at that long rank of volumes, and I shrink away.
A la recherché du temps perdu. This is the deepest regret of all, both in terms of my literary prowess and in what my failure to read Proust reveals about me. In an interview on the Dick Cavett show, Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: A Narrative, which I have read and which I have revisited many times, always with delight, told Cavett that he reread Proust every two or three years and that he considered it the greatest work of fiction of the last hundred years. Three times I have attempted to read the Frenchman’s fictionalized account of his life and society, and three times I have failed to advance more than 40 or 50 pages into the first volume. Flaw: my failure here reveals me as a middlebrow reader, a ham-and-egger when it comes to this part of the literary world. I’ve read Joyce, I’ve read Dante, but Proust proved to be my Everest. I simply didn’t have the oxygen for that rarified mountain.
So there they are, some books often desired but never to be read, like flowers or young women in a public park, to be admired but never plucked.