There was a Facebook meme circling not too long ago – “The 100 Greatest Books That You’ve Never Read, You Feculent Dim-Wit,” or the like. It was based on a list of must-read books compiled by the BBC. Because the British inject random “u’s” into their words and write dates backward, we feel inferior to them. So this list became the list by which we judged our reading prowess. After all, the home of Shakespeare couldn’t be wrong.
Excuse me, wroung.
For this meme, you marked the number of books on the list that you had read. A higher score meant, of course, that you possessed a superior ability to read books. My Facebook friends posted their scores – 67 out of 100, 42 out of 100, 0 out of 100 (this latter friend happens to be a dog). No one had read the full 100 books. Friends posted their scores with comments like, “Guess I’d better get reading lol!” or “I had a bad English teacher,” or “I’m too busy to read.” Like most memes, this one left us feeling vaguely ashamed of ourselves once we were finished with it, nervous about what we seemed to lack and eager to compare to others.
The good news is that no one reads memes anyway, so cheer up.
As a writer, former English major, and avowed literature snob, I’m all in favor of book-shaming educated adults. What do you mean you’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird? Do you like miscarriages of justice? What do you mean you’ve never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, Arundhati Roy, Gabriel García Márquez, or Kazuo Ishiguro? You deserve to work at a library. In prison.
But I also know that the literature canon is whiter than paste and more male than a burping football. So I understand why some people might not relate to or enjoy reading those books held up as the “greatest,” and maybe – as result of previous disengagement – avoid books altogether.
For these people, I have a secret for you: even we English majors sometimes hate and refuse to read the supposed literary crème de la crème. (That’s French for “I use French phrases because English is too pedestrian for what I’m trying to say.”)
Yeah! That’s right – we hate some books, too! I, for one, refuse to read a number of books that often appear on high school/college curriculums and on “best of” lists. I also avoid reading books recommended by people who 1.) have handlebar mustaches, or 2.) smoke clove cigarettes.
I’d like to share these unread books with you not because I’m celebrating willful ignorance. Rather, I think we should all feel more comfortable about not reading literature with which we can’t connect – even books that have long been canonized. And I believe it’s OK to question their sacred status. Maybe it’s not that you don’t “get it.” Maybe some books are just terrible.
With this in mind, I present to you my literary enemies.
Ulysses by James Joyce
This book is based on the Greek myth, The Odyssey. You know, the one about that guy, Odysseus, who goes off to fight in the Trojan War (sometimes referred to as “The Great Condom Battle”), and on his way back home gets distracted by hot but dangerous aquatic babes. Crazy things happen. For example, his men almost get made into bacon. By the time Odysseus gets home to his wife, he’s been gone for 10 years and she’s ready to marry another, but Odysseus ain’t having that. Everything turns out OK in the end, and they celebrate with a feast of Greek yogurt. There’s also a character named Laertes, which I think is a great name.
Anyway, the modern version of this old adventure is compressed into one day, set in Ireland, and written so that you can’t understand it. Because Ulysses is consistently ranked in the top five books of all time, I tried reading the first two chapters to see what the hullabaloo was about. I literally cannot tell you anything that transpired. I think someone went to a fair? Or maybe someone had an abortion? They had an abortion and then went to a fair? Or maybe it was an aborted fair or an unfair abortion. I don’t know.
Without relying too heavily on stereotypes, I think James Joyce was a drunk Irish bastard.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This book is longer than [insert dick joke]! And it’s got more hot air than [insert blow hole joke]! Heavy on symbolism, long on whale anatomy description, and written by someone named Herman, this tome means something different to everyone. It’s a fable of man vs. nature, a parable of good vs. evil, or an exploration of the existence of god. Maybe it’s about man-on-sea mammal love, but if that’s the case, I don’t think it’s any of our business.
In terms of plot, Moby Dick is about a whale that avenges the death of his wife, who was killed right in front of their son, a little fish with one fin smaller than the other. That little fish is named Nemo, and he travels twenty thousand leagues under the sea to join forces with Echo the Dolphin, who’s from Atlantis, and Sebastian the Crab, who lives in an under-the-sea Disney World. Together, they take on an evil shark named Jaws, who eats people from Cape Cod because they taste like chicken.
I did, in fact, read this entire book. I was forced to read it by a very excellent teacher whom I love to this day. But I will never read it again. Even if I was being chased by a whale and the only way to find out how to conquer it was to open the pages of the book, I would hold up my hands and say, “I’ve had a good run.”
I don’t think it’s too much to say that this book is my white whale. Don’t know where that particular phrase comes from, but it seems like a fitting description.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
No. I only have 50-some years left to my life, if that.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
This one might surprise you. But here’s why I have no interest in this book:
1. It was written in three weeks
2. It was written on a scroll
3. It was written by Jack Kerouac, king of the beatnik douchenozzles
I recognize that context is everything, and that Kerouac was writing introspective, boundary-busting stuff in the time of McCarthyism and cultural conformity. Good for you, Jack! Way to extend that introspection outside of your immediate sphere, like to women and non-white people.
OH WAIT YOU DIDN’T.
Plus, the beat poetry. Jesus Christ, the poetry. You weren’t doing us any favors there. What is it about snapping one’s fingers while talking that makes one a jackass? Beats me (doyouseewhatididthere). Want to do beat poetry right? Follow this guy’s example.
In conclusion, I probably won’t read this book because I can’t. Every time I try, I can’t seem to want to! It’s the darnedest thing. But hey: thanks, Jack, for making goatees and black turtlenecks a thing.
Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
This one may also surprise you. I love fantasy, but in movie form. I can’t read it. That goes for Game of Thrones, The Twilight Saga, or anything even resembling an alternate universe. I refuse to read four pages describing a sword, or to hear about the lineage of a werewolf who shapeshifts into an amoeba. Too much exposition kills the momentum. It’s like fantasy writers don’t quite get what’s important to readers – that is, sex and death and unicorns. Someone get on that for a band name.
Anyway, about the hobbits. I love them, hairy feet and all. I just don’t want to read about them singing songs and washing dishes (this really happens in the books). Consider your favorite show – maybe Breaking Bad. You’ll never see Walter White clipping his toenails, unless it’s important to the story. But this is the nonsense that regularly occurs in fantasy books. I started reading Game of Thrones and made it to page 4 before I put it down. The writer took several paragraphs describing someone’s lineage before that character beheaded someone. Still – four whole pages! It was a new record.
Thank goodness movie directors know what they’re doing and cut the hell out of fantasy books when translating them to screen. Even after all the cuts, The Lord of the Rings Director’s Cut trilogy is about 12 hours of footage. In this time, you could get a lot of stuff done with your life: apply for school, take out the trash, make a three-course meal, or read Moby Dick.
Another thing about fantasy is that the characters aren’t usually three-dimensional people, but symbols. This character represents greed, another represents hope, and another intellect. They just don’t seem real, which is strange because talking dragons are otherwise very realistic.
Junior Really Rockin’ Tolkien, I salute your imagination. I just can’t read it.
Anything by Ayn Rand
I started to read The Fountainhead, and then I took Rand’s “selfishness” philosophy to heart and stopped reading it. A book this terrible is nothing more than a taker on our bookshelves, expecting us to open its pages without offering anything of quality back to society. It’s a total welfare queen.
But the best part? I got the book at the library.
SUCK IT, RAND.
So there’s my list. What’s yours?