What’s Your Literary Wall of Shame?

Gabe Habash -- November 15th, 2011

The best and worst thing about books is that there are too many of them. According to Bowker, there were 288,355 titles published in 2009 in the U.S. alone. What that means is you have a whole lot of options, but that also means there are over 288,000 books every year that you haven’t read (unless you have nine eyes and more than 365 days, in which case you’re a time-traveling mutant and are readying plans to take over Earth). I’m not very good at math, but if you multiplied 288,000 and 100, I’d imagine you’d get a number with roughly 70 zeroes. This number would represent, give or take a few digits, the number of books in the last hundred years you haven’t read.

So, it’s only natural that some books will pass you by, including some books that didn’t pass by a lot of other people. These are the classics you haven’t read, and over at Knowledge Lost, they’ve coined a phrase for where these books go: Your Literary Wall of Shame. This is the most confessional blog post you’ll ever see on PWxyz, the most naked and the most raw, so won’t you help me out in my abject confession and tell me your Literary Wall of Shame? Okay then, let’s just rip the band-aid off all at once. Here are my literary blind spots.

1. More Shakespeare

By my count, I’ve read 11 of his plays, and at least one of those I’ve only seen performed on stage. Since he’s credited with 38 plays, that mean’s I’m batting about .300, which wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that William Shakespeare is William Shakespeare. But do I get extra points because I wore yellow garters as Malvolio when I was an adolescent thespian?

2. Don Quixote/D.H. Lawrence

It might seem an odd pairing, but they’re only together because both Cervantes’ epic and Lawrence’s oeuvre are sitting on my bookshelf, and I know I need to read them. In other words, they’re the blind spots that I’m most inclined (and excited) to address. I’ve always been drawn to really, really long books, and while Don Quixote tips the scale a little more than any of Lawrence’s books, the latter’s seem epic and satisfying in their own right. Plus, any writer who can inspire this book is a writer I want to read.

3. Charles Dickens

I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, which means I have the same knowledge of Dickens’ work as any American sixth grader. For me, his books are the anti-Quixote–they’re long books that just don’t appeal to me. And while I feel an obligation to read at least one more of his books, the dauntingly wide spines of David Copperfield, Bleak House and Great Expectations win every time. I suppose I don’t have the same excuse for A Tale of Two Cities, however…

4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

More than any other book of very high repute, Catch-22 has a lot of smack talked about it. People I know personally have said they just couldn’t get into it, while others have said it’s one-note. And then there are publications like The Guardian saying that Catch-22 is “too long, messy and takes 100 pages to get going.” And yet it seems to be following me: eerily placed on display tables for its recent 50th anniversary edition, on a ton of “Best Of” 20th century lists, and even lurking on my bookshelf when I come home. One day it will appear on my pillow, I know it. It’s getting closer.

5. Jorge Luis Borges

I have a weird, irrational fear of Borges. I’ve picked up his Collected Fictions at least half a dozen times in bookstores, then put it down each time. Mostly, I’m afraid that I won’t like him, and this, really, is probably the heart of why I don’t read what I think I “should.” We “should” read Walden and Thomas Hobbes and all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. But, we don’t have the time to read everything we “should” and within that category of things we “should” read, there are certain books that we just don’t think we’ll like. I’m a little less uncertain about whether I won’t like Borges than I am about whether I won’t like Dickens, but with Borges, I’m more afraid of reading him and not liking him and what that’ll say about me as a reader. Like I said, irrational. I feel like I “should” like Borges (he seems more in line with what I like than Dickens), but I’m worried that I won’t. Does that make sense? Okay, I’ll just go buy Collected Fictions.

15 thoughts on “What’s Your Literary Wall of Shame?

  1. Meghan

    I cannot stand Shakespeare or Dickens. Great Expectations? Never finished it even though it was a required read! As for the rest of your list, never read them. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is also on my quit list. It was required reading too!

    P.S. I have a degree in English.

  2. Deborah Jackson

    I have a shelf of “greats” I fully intend to read, someday.

    Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
    For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway
    Wuthering Heights, Bronte
    The Cider House Rules, Irving
    Lord of the Flies–yes, I haven’t read it yet, and I guess it has nothing to do with size.
    Cannery Row, Steinbeck.

    But I have read Great Expectations, and loved it.

    I stare at that shelf, then find myself drawn to the shelf below, crammed with more enticing reads of modern escapist literature.

    But “someday” I will read them.

  3. paul

    Never read anything by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Faulkner, Melville, JK Rowling, Borges, JC Oates, Aristotle, Plato, or Judt and I work in the book dept of a college store.

  4. Hannah

    Excellent article.

    I also have never made it through a Dickens. I’ve attempted Great Expectations three times but have never got more than a few pages in before swapping it for something more appealing.

    Haven’t made my way round to any Chekhov yet either, to my eternal shame.

    Then there’s the Catcher in the Rye. I’ve been told before you have to read it as a teenager to get the most out of it so it seems I’ve missed the boat.

    I’ve actually been blogging about this topic over the last few months, with a monthly Cheat Sheet on a book you should have read, but haven’t quite got round to, for the reasons stated above.

    Perhaps I should actually read Catcher in the Rye and then I can blog about it :)

  5. GG

    As you age, you accept that you will read a small percentage of what you want to (or feel you should) read. I also realized long ago that books praised as “great” will appeal to some and not to others. I love Dickens and have read most of his works, though it’s been 20 years since I last opened one of his novels. Like many dedicated long-time PBS viewers, I watched every one of the Shakespeare productions they aired about 25 years ago, and I’ve read about 25 of his plays.

    I have tried Borges many times to no avail; I find myself drifting off the page to look out the window. And I tap my foot with impatience every time I try to drum up interest in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yes, I know, it’s a great book. I just can’t get past the first hundred pages; I hear only that one-note you mention some readers hear in Catch-22 — which I place near the top of my all-time favorites list.

    Don Quixote is the book that rests patiently on the shelf, waiting for me, always next summer, next summer.

  6. Kitti

    I read slowly, very slowly, so I long ago had to give up feelings of reader shame. It wasn’t worth the effort of keeping up feeling so bad over something I couldn’t control.

    I figure if the book hasn’t somehow flung itself into my hands, knocking aside other hapless books to get there, and fallen open to the first page, it’s out of luck.

    Right now, I’m reading “Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man”, and skipping the literary pages of historical art critique in order to see pretty, Medieval examples of illumination. Hey, those pictures are worth, you know, a lot of words.

  7. Dave

    Five that I tried to read but couldn’t finish:

    1) Moby Dick
    2) Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna (Umberto Eco)
    3) Day of the Locust
    4) Gullivers Travels
    5) The Old Man and the Sea

    I did manage to make it all the way through Dickens’ Bleak House, although I had to do it via Books on Tape. I couldn’t get more that 5 pages into the printed version.

  8. Homer Hensley

    My wall of shame:

    1. Life Of Pi

    2. Lord Jim. I loved Heart of Darkness, but I could not make myself read more than 3 pages of Lord Jim before putting it down. And it was assigned reading in High School.

    3. Tennessee Williams. I have not even read the Glass Menagerie

    4. A Clockwork Orange. Saw the Movie, but never have read the book.

  9. Gene Harlow

    Hear, hear! Our intrepid reporter strikes again! Bravo, sir! For your bravery and valor! Into the depths of the Habash heart have we gone… into the ventricles and vesicles… now we see what this man is made of! Startlingly I see we have an omission in this LITERARY WALL OF SHAME… where be Dildo Cay?? Having read all his articles, I know our shameless interlocutor has spoken of its mind-numbing blandity (if you’ll pardon me, dear sir, as I invent words (OH, A MODERN SHAKESPEARE IS MR. HARLOW, INDEED!)) but still I resent its omission from this list! Revise, dear Habash, revise! Further into the depths must we go! Onward, I say, onward! Until this LITERARY WALL OF SHAME is toppled and our hearts are free to sing the joys of the written word!

  10. Lisa Guidarini

    Re: Shakespeare, his plays were meant to see not read, so you get quadruple points for all you’ve seen performed, plus the ones you’ve read. You’re a superstar!

    Read just the first half of Don Quixote. It’s the better of the two.

    DH Lawrence. Still trying to work in his works myself.

    Dickens – you wound me!! He’s one of my trio of literary gods, the other two being Woolf and Faulkner.

    Catch-22 – I have no idea. Now I won’t bother. One more off the list.

    Borges – EXACTLY the same as you. I’ve checked it out about five times, never read it.

    Helpful thoughts from a librarian. Well, thoughts, anyway.

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