This week—in the spirit of candidness, “zigzag paths,” and the ways in which “shoulds” affect our writing and reading lives (and vice versa)—members of the Bloom staff share their “Unread Classics.”
A crime worse than not reading a classic is to abandon one repeatedly. There is one classic that, no matter how much I pursue it, manages to elude me: Moby-Dick, my white whale of a book. I know why I never read Moby-Dick in the first place: in school, it was never assigned to me. And many, many other books were. So I told myself, After college or When the children are both in school or When my commute is longer. Eventually I did begin to read it. And I began to read it a few more times. I don’t know why I abandon it. I think it’s magnificent. Each time I am transported into Ishmael’s world in a way I wish every book could transport its reader. A 19th-century book about whaling couldn’t be further from my world or my interests. Yet the atmosphere the voice creates—one of melancholy, doom and drama—mesmerizes me. I am always struck by how modern the writing feels and impressed by the innovative (at the time) use of shifting perspective.
I want to read Moby-Dick. So why then have I never actually read it? I have a few guesses. Its length is one reason. Then there is the fact that my husband has been “reading” it for 10 years. A very worrisome sign to me! Perhaps it’s the infamous whaling chapter looming on the horizon. I have heard of this section defeating many-a-far-better reader than I. I also set myself unnecessary constraints. Surely Moby-Dick cannot be read on a bright summer’s day with the sounds of Citibikes being released from their steel shackles wafting in through my window? It really must be read no earlier than October—when the leaves have fallen and the sky becomes ominous and the winds pick up. And no matter its heft, it absolutely cannot be read on an e-reader. Melville deserves paper and ink. (It’s amazing I ever finish any book!) Still, I keep trying. There are many compelling reasons to read (and finish) Moby-Dick and really not a single good one not to.
Juhi Singhal Karan
I have a weakness for 19th-century British literature. The heft of its pages gratifies my reader’s soul, and its grounding in the minutiae of ordinary life satisfies my literary cravings. George Eliot was one such 19th-century British author whom I came to know early on through Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and The Mill on the Floss. That she was an authoress seeking refuge in a masculine name in an age inimical to a female writer was a fact that I wasn’t aware of for many years. Nor was I aware of Middlemarch, or the brouhaha surrounding it, until a few years ago. The book continued to limp in and out of my consciousness for a while before it carved a firm place for itself in my TBR pile last year. (And in case you’re wondering, no, Rebecca Mead, and her New Yorker article, and My Life in Middlemarch had nothing to do with it.) The switch happened in two phases. First, there was Rob Jacklosky’s article on George Eliot here at Bloom and the subsequent realization that Eliot herself was a Bloomer. Second—the clincher—was Zadie Smith’s impassioned essay on Eliot and Middlemarch in her book Changing My Mind. “Middlemarch is a book about the effects of experience that changes with experience,” says Smith. “Experience transforms perspectives, and transformations in perspective, to Eliot, constitute real changes in the world.” What Smith lays out about the book’s philosophical underpinnings appeals to me—it resonates with my own evolving understanding of life and has made me eager to see for myself how Eliot has woven it all together in a story that has endured for over 150 years.
On Not Reading Dickens
I was a smart little kid, well-read and articulate and full of myself. Middle-class 1970s parents took their children’s self esteem very seriously indeed, and I grew up firm in the knowledge that I was Clever and Advanced For My Age. I knew it, and you’d better believe everyone else knew it, too, so when I declared, at the age of eight, that Oliver Twist was my favorite book, no one would have thought to contradict me.
But Oliver Twist was not my favorite book. Rather, Oliver! was my favorite movie. It had come out a few years earlier, and while this was before on-demand video or even VCRs, it was shown fairly regularly, both in theaters and on TV. I couldn’t tell you how many times I watched it; let’s just say a lot. I loved everything about it: the young actors—Mark Lester because he was close to my age, and the edgy, handsome Jack Wild (oh, poor Jack Wild)—and Shani Wallis as the beautiful Nancy, whom I wanted to be mainly because she had that awesome red dress. The fact that she was a prostitute whose boyfriend eventually killed her didn’t quite register with me; I wasn’t quite as Advanced as my parents liked to think. I owned the soundtrack and knew every word to every song.
But no, I had not read Oliver Twist, and I still haven’t. Nor does the fact that I’ve watched every version of A Christmas Carol ever made, and seen the original manuscript at the Morgan Library, mean that I’ve read that book either. In fact—and this is a hard thing to admit—I’ve never read any Dickens. Not one word. And I don’t know why. I love elaborate plots, I love big casts of characters, I love social drama and satire. Many of my favorite books have been called “Dickensian,” and I have no doubt I’d enjoy his work enormously. I’ve even been instructed where to start: Bleak House, or David Copperfield, or maybe Great Expectations. And I intend to; I feel like there’s an important building block missing in my literary life. I know that when I do, I’ll be a better reader and critic for it. And it would make my parents happy, if only because it will be good for my self esteem.
The Grapes of Wrath
My failure to have read The Grapes of Wrath stands with my failure to read a few other works of American social realism—as willful resistance to a sort of writing that for a long time simply didn’t please me. Early on I was enchanted by language (Colette), strangeness (Shirley Jackson; Borges), anything medieval; anything involving tortured inner states (Under the Volcano). My acquaintance with George and poor Lennie in Of Mice and Men and the dismal tragedy of the child’s death in The Pearl and what I then saw as the coarse flatness of “The Chrysanthemums” were sufficient—why read more? And I knew the story of the Joads, anyway. Partly knew it. By the time I had two graduate degrees in English, it was like when you’ve gotten deep enough into an acquaintance with someone that you can’t backtrack and ask his name—so you start avoiding him. Truthfully, I’ve never even watched the film with Henry Fonda in its entirety, because the gap in my knowledge was such an embarrassment. Because it wasn’t an accidental gap—secretly, I knew I’d rejected the book for silly, immature reasons.
Taste matures, thank goodness. The techniques of realism started to satisfy somewhere just past the midpoint in life. Last summer my 15-year-old son read The Grapes of Wrath and followed it up with East of Eden. I told him I hadn’t read them because I didn’t like Steinbeck when I was younger. He said that what he liked about them was their simple language, complex stories, realistic characters. I told him I was going to read The Grapes of Wrath soon, and I will. But right now I am savoring the fact that he knows more about it than I do.