‘Fess Up! What Books Haven’t You Read/Movies Haven’t You Seen?

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has been on my “to read” list for about three years now. I just finished it an hour ago. I liked it. A little too much setting (so many ocotillos!) and spitting for my liking, but I’m haunted by that hairless judge. However, to be able to say something more remotely intelligent or interesting about Blood Meridian, I’d have to read it again and, you know, actually THINK about it or something. In fact, I’d probably have to take some notes. No joke.

But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Because for so many of us who have at one point or another self-identified as “English majors” or who at least like to think of ourselves as “well read” in the broadest sense of the term, it seems like it’s enough to simply be able to say that at one point we finished such-and-such book, have seen this or that film, or can tell a Beethoven from a Bach or a Monet from a Manet. Completing Blood Meridian earns me another stamp in my English major passport. Now when I teach The Road, I can tell my students unabashedly and without feeling fraudulent that McCarthy plays it fast and loose with rules of punctuation in other of his works as well. Hooray for me.

Somewhere floating in the ether is a list of books that we all feel we should have read by now, and to have more than several still not checked off can be a source of shame.

Here’s how a younger version of myself dealt with it. Picture me standing at a party with two other Englishy types, trying to juggle   a glass of cheap Merlot and an overfilled plate of cheese and melon slices. (You know the type of party I’m talking about, right?) The person to my left says, “It’s a shame that Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is rarely taught because I think it’s as good as her short stories.” The person to my right replies, “Actually, I think it’s even better.” What do I say? “I do love ‘Good Country People,’ though.”

See what I did there? I haven’t actually read Wise Blood, but I’m not admitting it, yet I’m not really lying either. And, at the same time, I am subtly announcing that I have read “Good Country People” and therefore belong in the club. No way this girl’s getting bounced from the party for gaps in her cultural knowledge!

Then, at some point in graduate school, a wiser, older person told me that you’re a REAL English major when you no longer fear revealing what you haven’t read or seen. Doing so means you’re confident that your list of “have reads/seens” far outweighs a few admittedly notable omissions. After this conversation, an older me at parties began saying things like, “You know, I haven’t read Wise Blood. Why do you like it?”

I’ll confess that the first time I did this, I feared this reaction:

Ending of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Ending of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

But most of the time, what I’ve found is that a lot of people can’t really answer these types of questions. They’ve read the book, sure, but it was a long time ago and they’ve forgotten the details and only vaguely recall that they liked it or have a sense that they should like it. (It’s Flannery O’Connor, after all, and she’s AWESOME because she’s so WEIRD.) But beyond that, a lot of people really have nothing significant to say; they just  wanted everyone in hearing distance to know that they’ve read One Of The Books On The List. People who aren’t full of it will, without batting an eye at your ignorance, actually say something interesting and useful and will certainly NOT try to make you feel inadequate (i.e., say something like “Oh my God, you haven’t read Wise Blood? You HAVE to go out and get it RIGHT NOW!”).

I say we all take a small step forward and admit what literary/cinematic classics that we haven’t seen. Let’s just come clean. It’s about time I shook some of this shame from off my shoulders, so I’ll go first. Here are some literary book clubs I imagine would likely reject my application for membership :

1) The Renaissance Festival-ers: I’m pretty sure I’ve never read King Lear, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, or The Tempest. I’m sure there’s more.

2) The Cool-Dystopian-Politically-Savvy-Ralliers: I’ve missed out on 1984, Brave New World, Slaughterhouse Five (or anything by Vonnegut except Cat’s Cradle, I’m pretty sure), Fahrenheit 451, or a novel by David Foster Wallace.

3) The American Male Realists: I have not read anything by Henry James longer than a novella or anything by Twain not called Huck Finn or The Mysterious Stranger. (I’m not counting those condensed classics I read as a kid.)

4) Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew: I haven’t read anything by the master of horror since The Green Mile (1996).

5) The Women (and some Men) Who Love Women Who Write Lots of Cool Novels Club: I vaguely recall reading one novel by Margaret Atwood, but I couldn’t tell you which one, and I’m pretty sure it’s only one. Ditto with Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, and Joyce Carol Oates.

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12 thoughts on “‘Fess Up! What Books Haven’t You Read/Movies Haven’t You Seen?

  1. I have never read anything by JK Rowling (and don’t really intend to, and don’t feel bad about it), Tolstoy, Jeff Eugenides, Upton Sinclair, Philip K. Dick, Homer, Ralph Ellison, Jack London, Stephen King, or Norman Mailer.

    I have read nothing by Henry James longer than “Turn of the Screw.” I’ve read only two or three essays by Emerson and one or two handfuls of poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I have only read “In Our Time” and a handful of short stories by Hemingway. I have read nothing by Steinbeck except “Of Mice and Men” and a handful of stories. I’ve never read a novel by DFW (which is conspicuous considering I’ve read almost all of his essays and short stories). I’m in the same situation as you with Mark Twain, and pretty much everyone under Group 5 above except Margaret Atwood.

    And don’t even get me started on the poetry (Milton) or philosophy (Aristotle) I have never read.

    1. Don’t worry about Rowling. I love the books but I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I didn’t grow up with them.

      I’ve never read anything by Mailer. I’ll skip him, and I’d counsel you to ignore Sinclair. Rubbish, utter tripe that is only taught for historical purposes and because it’s easy to teach. It’s easy to teach because it’s blusteringly simple. Sorry again for any possible bragging, but I’ve read all the others.

      Now, I’ve really never read a scrap from: Samuel Beckett, Cervantes, Gogol, Thomas Mann, Rushdie, Fielding, Sterne, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Arthur Miller, Stoker, Anthony Burgess, Kazuo Ishiguro, Thomas Hardy, Allende, Richard Wright, HG Wells, Tennessee Williams, Chaucer (except for bits), Byron, Thackeray, Hunter S. Thompson, and any (really, ask just about any) popular fiction for the past 30 years.

      Now, for fun, here’s a list of authors that I have read. But I can’t say I’ve honestly enjoyed or loved what I’ve read by them. So here goes my list of people that I have to be forced to read again: Hemingway, Steinbeck, any of the Bronte sisters, Swift, Virgil (read that after my wisdom teeth were removed, so I might be biased), Mary Shelley (I prefer her husband, even though the verse can be pretentious), Balzac, Hawthorne, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Kerouac, Philip Pullman, most of the holy texts (never again do I want to approach those–I was a religious fanatic in my teenage years and I looked into most of the major world religious texts out of pretentious curiosity), and the bloody Lord of the Rings (most overrated books ever).

      God, that was like a hemorrhage. Sorry for the lengthiness and I promise I’m not flashing an ENG major passport. I’d just be very lonely without books.

    1. I’ll have to sign on to several of these camps, though I’m going to withhold some of my Invasion of the Body Snatchers pointing. Many of these cracks were filled by college and having far too much free reading time. NB: none of the following is me showing my English major passport. I can’t think of a better way to respond to your list than to mention the ones I have read. So bear with me.

      1) Sorry, I can’t join you on Shakespeare. I’ve read just about everything multiple times, even obscure plays and sonnets. I’ve read nothing by any of his contemporaries though–no Ben Jonson or Marlowe or any of the depressing lot. Elizabethans were a cranky lot.

      2) You might want to read some of those for horror. But I can’t talk. I read most of those because they were assigned in classes. Dystopians aren’t my cup of tea and I kind of refuse to read Brave New World because, frankly, I think it sounds dull. Why all the DFW guilt? Frankly I don’t feel pressured at all to open his doorstop. I think I got too much of 800+ page tomes when I was reading them nonstop in high school. Again, I am not bragging.

      3) Thank god. As one who has read some longer Henry James, I can safely say that you can skip him. I do not regret throwing Wings of the Dove at a wall. He was the only author who ever made me do that. And maybe I’m not educated enough, but I never think of Twain as a realist. His high tales and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court just seem to rise above the plodding nature of most realists. I’ll admit I despise realists. Most of them have some moral knife hidden in their prose and it gets preachy. Just my reaction.

      4) I haven’t read any King outside of the Dark Tower series. But then I’m not into horror (I know, sacrilege on this blog). I also haven’t read any Lovecraft. And I haven’t enjoyed Poe since I was a teenager. For me, I think he’s stuck in that range of writers I only enjoyed at a certain age.

      5) Maybe you read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Everyone reads that in college at some point. I did. How on Earth did you avoid Virginia Woolf? I’ve read most of her and enjoyed most of it as well, but seriously how did you avoid her in college curriculums? Angela Carter is fun. I have not even considered looking into the others you listed.

      1. Okay, here’s the thing. Karen told me about this ‘fess up idea weeks ago and my mind went wild. I don’t really feel guilt about not reading books, but I thought this was going to be more of a book club situation. I thought that every participant would list a handful of books he or she hadn’t read, then read them with book club support. So I made a list, started reading my stuff, and made notes. In other words, I took this way too seriously. So if you’ll indulge me (Karen already said she will), I’ll be doing my original plan. So here’s my list of 6 authors that I’ve never read before but am now devouring. I’ll post short remarks on each one later. No one has to join me against their inclinations.

        1) Henrik Ibsen
        2) Raymond Chandler
        3) Philip K. DIck
        4) Flannery O’Connor
        5) Elizabeth Bishop
        6) Anne Frank

        PS – And Karen, I have to say that you could easily tell the difference between Beethoven and Bach. Am I being naïve to assume that most people, even non-classical music lovers, could tell the difference between them?

        PPS – I really don’t watch many movies, so if we keep up that end of the thread I want to ‘fess up to not seeing thousands of must see classics and blockbusters.

  2. Brad, I think it’s time you start your own blog. I can already see several titles: “How To Tell Bach from Beethoven,” “Brad Watches The Matrix,” “Brad Watches Alien,” “Brad Watches The Avengers.” If you keep posting lists of what you’ve read, no one will want to admit what they haven’t.

    1. Oh shucks, now I know I’ve brought my awkward brand of pretentiousness to your blog. I didn’t mean it, officer, I swear.

      And sorry, I am not watching the Avengers. What can I say, I’m not the type of nerd who enjoys superheroes.

      And I am starting a blog. It will make profoundly clear that I have plenty of gaps in my knowledge.

      1. He’s the only one I’ve technically read before, but it was an assignment so that doesn’t count so much. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and thoroughly enjoyed it.

      1. By the way, you made me look up what O’Connor’s Wise Blood is about. I’d never heard of it before and now I’m definitely going to read it. It’s a good thing I ordered a Library of America edition of O’Connor–complete works, yes. So the only question is whether I should read that or some short stories first.

        And is it just me? There are parties where people talk about literature? I think I just have to count myself as “not cool enough” for the literature club, because I’ve never heard of such a thing.

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