Classic Books You Haven’t Read

Almost everyone who considers themselves literate, or simply wishes to be, has one or more books that haunt them, the classic they haven’t read.

Some take this book on vacation, a seemingly foolproof way to browse, and never crack the cover. Others keep an ever-growing list of books they feel they should read, or never forget the one they lied about completing in high school, or lied about at a cocktail party. last week.

Is the book’s guilt an effective source of inspiration or should it be left on the shelf with that solitary copy of “Ulysses”?

Readers regularly share their embarrassment at not reading “Pride and Prejudice” with author Curtis Sittenfeld, who this year published “Eligible,” a retelling of the Jane Austen classic. Ms Sittenfeld has her own sense of guilt for skipping Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’.


Josephine Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of “Eligible,” the 2016 bestseller “Pride and Prejudice,” says readers tell him with almost every book signing that they haven’t read the Jane Austen classic. His reaction depends on the reader’s level of guilt. Sometimes readers are sheepish, she says, essentially “asking me if it’s legal to read ‘Eligible’ without reading ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ She gently encourages them to give it a shot. But ‘eligible’ readers who don’t show any remorse for bypassing “Pride”?

“It makes me a schoolteacher,” says Ms. Sittenfeld. “Well you should!”

She handles her own book guilt with a similar mix of forgiveness and tough love. “It’s shocking and appalling, but I haven’t read ‘Beloved’,” Ms Sittenfeld says of Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel. She hasn’t read “Moby-Dick” either. But unless someone she considers brilliant invites her to read it together, she has no intention of doing so.

“Moby-Dick” is a Maria Stasavage, a high school English teacher in New York, read twice. She hated it during her own high school years, then enjoyed it more as an adult. Sitting unread on its shelf, however, is Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” complete with a cloth-wrapped cover.

“Because I bought this beautiful copy,” she thought to herself, “I will appreciate it even more.” But while Ms. Stasavage loves Wilde’s shorter, wittier pieces, something stops her when she tries to sit down with “Gray.”

“Probably the Internet,” she says.

She understands how similar distractions could prevent her students from accessing the final action-packed scenes of “The Odyssey.” Although this is required reading for her freshmen, she knows it has a good chance of becoming a source of future guilt, no matter how hard she tries to break Homer down into understandable chunks.

Penguin Classics vice president and editor Elda Rotor thinks small bites — reading one chapter at a time and not obsessing over finishing — can be a satisfying way to approach classics. His imprint, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, is also trying to attract new readers by bringing in artists and graphic designers to reinterpret covers that may seem too stuffy for the modern reader.

One of her favorite reinterpretations was last November’s cover of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” for which she wanted “a cover without hoods,” Ms. Rotor says. The new version is based on a real woman’s glove with a map of London’s Great Exhibition attractions.

‘Moby-Dick’ is a classic novel that even some of the most accomplished readers admit they’ve never read.


F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

Which book is at the top of Ms. Rotor’s list to finish? The 800-page “Middlemarch”, she admits, before adding: “I love the bites I had.”

Solace Southwick’s daughter brought home an English lesson program in August that sparked her own book guilt. Seeing “A Tale of Two Cities” on the homework list, the Houston attorney announced she would be reading it with her daughter, Virginia, a freshman in high school. Ms Southwick has read Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, but not many others, she says.

“Dickens is definitely part of the canon, loved by many, and sort of up my alley,” Ms Southwick says. She jokes that she may have hinted to her daughter that “Cities” would be a re-read for her.

Nigel Cameron says the classic books that many come to believe they must read – “the canonical expectations of an educated community”, he says – are so numerous that no one can ever feel fully secure in their own reading achievements. Mr. Cameron, the president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, DC, laughed as he recalled his pride at having done half a Marcel Proust novel only to learn that a friend had just finished it in French original.

Although Mr Cameron read through many early classics – ‘War and Peace’ at age 13, he says – the one that stands out on his list of unread regrets is EB White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. And because it’s the one whose magic is most felt by young readers, its guilt is even more acute. “It’s not just that I haven’t read ‘Charlotte’s Web’, it’s that I will never be able to read ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ These are horrible things!” said Mr. Cameron.

Shawn Donley oversees new book purchases at famed Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and his signature email includes what he’s currently reading and what he’s just finished. He can speak eloquently of the countless classics he’s read and authoritatively suggest many novels that haven’t even been released yet. But don’t ask him about “Infinite Jest.”

“When it first came out, I wanted to be seen reading it…then I gave it up, and gave it up again,” Mr. Donley says of David Foster Wallace’s notoriously difficult read. Now, “I don’t even want to be seen with the book because it’s a feeling of failure,” he says.

Powell’s has created lists such as 25 Books to Read Before You Die over the past three summers. This list includes Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and, yes, “Infinite Jest.”

“We are very prolific readers. We’ve spent our lives being readers,” Mr. Donley says of the list’s creators. This makes the compilation process particularly guilt-inducing, he says, because while someone on the team has of course read every single one of them, no one has read more than a dozen.

Amazon editor Chris Schluep, a longtime former editor at Random House, suggests people dealing with book guilt stop fighting. If not having read a particular author is causing you stress, he says, choose the author’s shorter book.

Mr. Schluep also often reads works by Herman Melville and Daniel Defoe while waiting in line – a few pages at a time, no matter how long the reading takes. And before you dive in, suggests Schluep, get a second opinion from someone you trust. The book may not be for you.

Above all, he thinks readers should just drop the book’s guilt. “People are too judgmental about books,” especially the classics, Schluep says.

And if there’s a particular book you can’t fight for, there’s a way to get the gist of a classic work without doing the work.

“Watch the movie,” he said.

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About Marcia G. Hussain

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