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July 25, 2008

You've Got to Not Read This!

OK, I'll admit it. I've never read Aeschylus in the original Greek. Nor Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata. No, not even in translation, if you can believe it. And I know I should be hanged for this, but I haven't even read the complete works of Shakespeare. I just can't get through the third act of Titus Andronicus. One of the most insufferable ways that people proclaim their literary worth is by feigning embarrassment over not having read an obscure work of literature. Of course—as they'll proudly note—they've gleaned enough from conversation to hold their own at cocktail parties.

Don't even think about not reading this in translation.

While smug literary stiffs are as ancient as the printed word, the practice of reveling in one's own supposedly shameful gaps in the canon traces back to David Lodge's campus novel Changing Places. In the book, Lodge introduces a literary parlor game called Humiliations, in which participants name the book they are most embarrassed to have never read. An obnoxious American academic admits that he has never read Hamlet, and simultaneously wins the game while losing his job.

A clever conceit in the novel, the game has since been used as a tool for publications to have respected authors and critics own up to their omissions. Slate has done so twice, and most recently Britain's Daily Telegraph has played the game with assorted literary types at the (ironically awkwardly-named) Ways With Words Festival in Devonshire, England. The problem with these assorted literary types is that most of them can't help but use the game as an excuse to show off.

Would anyone actually think less of BBC Correspondent Martin Bell for admitting he's never read the autobiography of General William Slim? Amy Bloom, it's alright if you've never finished Moby-Dick—no one else has, either. And Carlin Romano, not reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a point of pride in some circles.

These lists feature a number of unsurprising repeats. Apparently, Tolstoy is much more talked-about than actually read. Ulysses—spoiler alert!—is difficult to get through. So is the Bible, especially in Hebrew. In Slate's follow-up piece, it's noted that "a reputable American author…said that unless a writer had read George Eliot's Middlemarch, she didn't consider them an educated person." According to that author and these lists, there are quite a few uneducated writers and academics out there at the most prestigious publications and universities. Norman Podhertz, Walter Kirn, and Angie Cruz all lament missing out on Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but to be fair, not many people make it down to Amazon's 83,486th ranked best-seller.

But the ultimate in self-congratulating pseudo-humility has to be when someone refers to a work they haven't read by its foreign title. Jonathan Ames, Louis Menand, and John Sergeant are all downright ashamed to have never read Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, aka Remembrance of Things Past. And while most of us can come up with much more embarrassing books that we haven't gotten to, I challenge anyone to come up with a more stuck-up 25 seconds of internet video than when Sergeant begins talking at the 2:20 mark.

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