Daily Archives: March 26, 2012

LIAR! Books You’ve Never Read

We all lie. We all like to thing we’ve done things we haven’t and when it comes to claiming we are well versed in the greats of literature we like to lie even more than usual. So you read the Beowolf did you? And all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past?  Well we don’t believe you. Here’s ten books which we have all read at some time or other…allegedly;

1) House of Leaves; Mark Z. Danielewski’s 

Even for those who’ve read it, describing House of Leaves is nigh-on suicidally difficult. You hear people who definitely haven’t read it saying things like ‘it’s a book within a book within a book’. Hmmm.Whatever it is, it’s fiendishly impenetrable to understand-House of Leaves  is a maze of diaryesque jottings,  convoluted footnotes, appendices, poems and letters, and general literary subterfuge. It reads like a nightmare  but you haven’t read it.

2 Moby Dick; Hermann Melville

“Call me Ishmael.” With these three words,probably recited with pride and smugness, you know someone’s lying if they say they’ve read it. Another giveaway is a well-rehearsed speech on the whale being a metaphor for all kinds of crap. An epic tale, woefully under-read, reading Moby Dick is like reading the New Testament of grand moralizing.

3 Dead Souls; Nikolai Gogol

‘it’s this clever, satirical, witty book about corrupt officialdom and peasantry..it’s about life more than death in fact…’ Few have read it. Gogol’s only novel, Dead Souls concerns  a young man who travels around Russia buying up “dead souls” – that is, peasant workers who have died, but who are still registered as living in the census records. Hugely satirical, strictly a name-dropper.

4 Middlemarch; George Eliot

No you haven’t-you say you have but actually you haven’t.  Eliot uses a small, fictitious town as a model for civilisation in general. Apparently it’s superb; epic in its scope and vision. Virginia Woolf later called  it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

5 War and Peace; Leo Tolstoy

An obvious one and of course you haven’ read it. It’s a long old book, covering an outrageously wide cast of characters in  19th Century Russia during the Napoleonic  invasion. The conflict on the battlefield is compared to the squabblings and intrigues  amongst Russia’s elite. More of an event than a book, it remains  desperately under-read

6 Madame Bovary; Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert was an outright nut but, with madame Bovary, he produced a heroine of lasting literary stardom. She is a flawed and pathetic creature, caught up in the whiffiest of French pretensions but ultimately madame Bovary is perhaps the most sympathetic character in all French literature. A brilliant story of adultery, social mores and the need to keep up appearances, few have read it despite its palatable length and easy style.
7 Crime and Punishment; Fyodor Dostoevsky

Are those cheeks still blushing? Another classic which is left on the bookshelves for all eternity, Dostoevsky’s message is beautiful and clear;  ‘humility sanctifies whilst humiation damns’

The novel itself tells the intense tale of a young  student who sees himself as above the law. He decides to commit murder but later becomes sick with guilt and shame whilst the noose around him tightens.

8 Dracula; Bram Stoker

Criminally under-read and no it isn’t just about Transylvania and silver bullets ….Dracula actually spends most of his time in London. Dracula certainly isn’t elegant but it was released to instant critical acclaim. Stoker’s prose uses diary-style jottings which recount the frantic pace of Dracula’s evil doings. It swithches between characters and perspectives,  and boils with menace. The original, and best, vampire story.
9 Finnegans Wake; James Joyce

‘Yeah it’s like the hardest book i’ve ever read, really experiemntal prose and ….’ Written over 17 painstaking years in Paris, scarcely anyone has read Finnegans Wake and for good reason. Ulysses is difficult enough as it is. FW mixes up words, and jumbles prose styles; its sentences come flying off the page on parachutes of apparent nonsense. a masterpiece..we are told.

10Paradise Lost; John Milton

‘erm…it’s…erm’

The expulsion of mankind from the Garden of Eden its a tale of Christian morality. And that’s about that.

Long Reads

Everyone who reads books (probably far less of us than ever before) have certain hang-us. You know, when you’re on a train or plane and you see that smug looking person with the Forbidden Fruit or the Nazi Gold. Half the Amazon just sprawled out in their ink stained fingers. You hate them. You hate them for their patience and their high-brow learning and their capacity to endure where you cant even begin. What the hell am I talking about? I’m talking about the pleasures and pains of reading very long books.

That girl is reading War and Peace, that man is reading Les Miserables and that prize  poodle is even reading Don Quixote. There is something bamboozingly preposterous about reading one of those epics in public isn’t there? I have failed with most attempts made in private and I genuinely  struggle to get past page 450 EVEN if I’m enjoying a particular book.

Perhaps its my commitment issues. I go for short and intense whirlwind romances with my leafy printed lovers and I feel their deaths when they are done. They are fleeting however, and the epics I do not read would be too much like marriage. Three months is too long to get divorced and 1000 pages would take me about 3 months (I’m quite a slow reader but even so).

So should our best books be shorter, more self contained, less demanding efforts upon our readers? Or is a good book exactly as long as a piece of string and 500 pages of masterly literature is better than 300 pages of masterly literature? I’m not so sure- I think I’ll die without having read some of the ‘big ones’. But maybe that’s not so bad. It is surely better to read a lot more smaller books than plough through one of the ‘biggies’ in the hope of putting a notch on your belt (yes us bookies are that sad).

Reading should not be a chore, even if it requires a lot of effort. My own advice; don’t ever let the author get away with anything less than meeting precisely your own demands of excellence as erstwhile reader- if it’s too long then it’s too long, even if the final page of  Anna Karenina feels like the daughter you never had- smug gits! As E.M. Forster said, ‘One always tends to over praise a long book, simply because one has got through it’

With the advent of e-books and with an overflow of instant technology, the days of vast sandwich-box books may even be numbered. Even a well read Vicky Pollard could shriek, ‘Gone with the Wind,  but that’s 5 gigabytes of storage and 50 hours reading time! But it would only take 3 and half hours to watch on DVD!’