Monday, October 8, 2007

Your bloody Hamlet

“At a party of English department academics, for example, someone might begin by confessing that he has never read a novel by Norman Douglas. The next person might claim never to have read, say, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Someone then chimes in with the admission that she has never read the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘Hopkins hell,’ someone else says, ‘I’ve never read a poem by Yeats.’ Everyone agrees that is fairly impressive, until a full professor says ‘Yeats, Schmeats, I’ve never read The Faerie Queene.’ A sucking in of the breath is heard around the room. Then a woman off in the corner, the department’s resident Marxist, admits that not only has she never read Chaucer, but she isn’t even certain of the century in which he lived. Suddenly a quiet man, the head of the school’s American studies program, strides forth, obvious pride in his posture, to announce , 'I hate to break up these festivities, but I’m afraid that’s just what I’m about to do. You ready for this? I have never read a play by Shakespeare – and that includes your bloody Hamlet.'"

From “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan”, collected in Once More Around the Block, by Joseph Epstein.

There are many interesting things in this passage, not the least of which is that Epstein stole the whole thing from the David Lodge novel Changing Places (unread by me). The Lodge scene is the most famous thing he has written – can it now have been retold so many times that people present it as fact? Or is Epstein having a little joke with us, or is he retelling it so he can write “Yeats, Schmeats”, an obvious improvement. Anyway, the story always ends with the confession by some Professional Reader of not having read “your bloody Hamlet.” In Lodge, the confession comes from a poor sap up for tenure the next day, who should, it turns out, have kept his mouth shut.

Some of my bloody Hamlets: In English lit, Middlemarch and Jane Eyre. In American, The Scarlet Letter. In French, with The Red and the Black recently checked off, probably Les Miserables. My judgment here is based on reputation, not a strong sense of missing something. In Russian, the biggest holes are the third and fourth (most famous) big Dostoevsky novels The Devils and The Idiot, or whatever they’re calling them these days. I think I’d be happier spending more time with Turgenev, but Dostoevsky is the bigger name now. Which would be more valuable, a new read of The Scarlet Letter, or a reread of Moby Dick, last seen at age 15, with minimal comprehension? But regardless of the quality of the reading, Moby Dick has a checkmark by it.

Then there’s the whole Henry James issue. And Zola, who I suspect I will hate. And 8 or 9,000 pages of unread Dickens. And I haven’t mentioned a single poet. Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, just as examples, a sort of terrifying list.

I'm still young and foolish enough to assume I will fit this all in someday. If the Neurotic Reader keeps on with the 19th Century business at his current pace, he will think himself well read (in the century) in 7 to 10 years. Then he can either move on to something else or will have discovered that his standard was wrong.


  1. Okay, well, Jane Eyre was a bugaboo of mine for years because I was told how much I would love it for so long, and was *taught* it in school in this horrific way...a way much similar to the way in which I was taught Moby Dick. In short, I was told that the former was a love story (which, yeah, I guess so, but really it's mostly not) and the latter was about whale-hunting (which, yeah, I guess so, but really it's mostly not). So -- what I'm saying is, none of this is your fault (as more-or-less a product of the same state educational system that screwed you up on this). I have a tremendous regard for both of these books now. I just know in my heart that you will feel much as I do about Melville at the end of this little project of yours, at any rate. My feelings about Bronte are multivariate and complex, and have no idea if you will share them. But -- to paraphrase Joe C. -- the Melville! the Melville! It is something you owe yourself. Hee.

  2. Hmm. An insprational comment, productive of many ideas, which I will save for later. Here, I will just make the point that I am not writing because I know a lot about 19th century literature. Quite the opposite.

  3. General Stumm, in Musil's the Man without Qualities (certainly another book that requires a reread--this time with comprehension), General Stumm discovers that it will require, at the rate of a book a day, a mere 10,000 years to achieve his goal of being well-read. But then he wasn't limiting himself to single century.

  4. General Stumm sounds like a wise maniac - sorry, man. I read closer to a book every three days, so I will have to adjust my timetable accordingly.

    This is an encouraging post to revisit, since in five years I have read everything I mentioned, including Hamlet, but the two Dostoyevskys (and David Lodge). Not bad. Boy did I guess wrong about Zola, but the blame lies on the useless "Naturalism" label.

    In another essay, Epstein writes "I myself would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a strong hunch about which will come first." I wish I had written that.