Joseph Epstein proposes a useful new category of books: “those one is pleased never to have read.” Before you get high and mighty, think about it: Aren’t you glad -- limiting nominees exclusively to Nobel Prize recipients – not to have devoted precious hours to reading José Echegaray y Eizaguirre, Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo? That’s what I thought.
Epstein begins his personal gratitude list with John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat Boy, tumid tomes I endured when still young and strong. He goes on to suggest appropriately unread titles by Mailer, Roth, Updike and Pynchon, as well as Plath’s unreadable The Bell Jar and “the next four novels of Salman Rushdie.”
We think of peer-pressure as a phenomenon of the teenage years. But wouldn’t you agree that publishing and much vogueish literary criticism and canon-building depends on it? No one would have voluntarily read An American Dream or Why Are We in Vietnam? unless urged to do so by critics of dubious judgment and their own desire to appear sophisticated or with-it. I include my younger self in that category. Vanity drives much of the literary world, both readers and writers.
Let’s not limit our happily unread list to the recent and contemporary. The present, after all, is a small, provincial place. I have never read anything by a Brontë, Wilkie Collins or Jack London. Nor have I read a series urged on me recently by a reader, The Chronicles of Narnia. As one matures, entire genres become unread and often unreadable – most notably, fantasy and science fiction. We become jealous of our time and don’t wish to squander it on fashionable trash. Epstein continues:
“This could be followed by an accompanying list of books one regrets having read. Many of the same authors would of course appear on both lists.”
That list is vast and, blessedly, some of it has been forgotten. Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Melville’s Pierre, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Günter Grass, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Charles Olson, Finnegans Wake. So much wasted time and effort.
[You’ll find Epstein’s proposal in Where Were We? (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017), his second collection of email exchanges with Frederic Raphael, on page 259.]