Friday, September 25, 2020

'Those One Is Pleased Never to Have Read'

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.]


Tim Guirl said...

Recommending books to read, or not, requires intimately knowing the taste of another reader; otherwise, it's a minefield. The best thing, to my mind, is to share one's own experience and let the other person take it from there. That is one of the reasons I enjoy this blog. It has provided me with many happy reading moments and links to writers I may never have otherwise encountered.

Thomas Parker said...

I read my first Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White - a couple of years ago. If that's squandering time, may I continue to squander it.

Cal Gough said...

I suppose the notion of one's favorite writers being a matter of taste applies equally to one's least favorite authors. Ditto any list of "best books" or "worst books" (or, for that matter, best or worst authors). For example, how Kurt Vonnegut could end up on your list of "optional" (or worse) authors and on my list of "mandatory" authors is a mystery that must remain unsolved. A bit less mysterious, perhaps, is the never-ending difference of opinion (taste?) about Virginia Woolf. I find her novels to be less appealing than her essays, and would regret someone choosing not to read any of her essays because they didn't like one (or all) of her novels. So it seems that it's almost pointless to generalize yay or nay to any given author, even: it sorta depends on particular works, at least for me.