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:
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.