Monday, February 2, 2009

I'm so Humiliated

Prof. Novel Reading has been playing the Humiliation game, in which she confesses to the most glaring omissions in her lifetime reading. For Rohan, this game has some meaning. As a specialist in the Victorian novel, she admits that there is some professional sense in which she should have read Martin Chuzzlewit and Pendennis and any of 29 unread Trollope novels. To the Amateur Reader, none of those are famous enough to count as Humiliations (although Martin Chuzzlewit is pretty great).

Rohan humbly omits two things. First, that as part of her training, she has a pretty good idea of what's in those books, and if she doesn't she knows where to find out. For some scholarly purposes, a book that's been read is not much more valuable than one that hasn't been. Shockingly anti-literary of me, but there are interesting things in the world besides the purely literary, and some of those things are usefully studied by literature professors.

Second, as with all well-trained literature PhDs, there was a concentrated period of intense reading, broad and deep, covering the entire history of whichever literature they've picked. This is aside from the later specialization, the dissertation and whatnot. Those first couple of years of graduate school provide a base for the entire career. This is one reason (of many) that there is minimal prof-bashing at Wuthering Expectations. Lit profs know their business.

I've done a lot of the reading that the lit profs have done, but on a surface level. Few secondary sources, for example, and then mostly literary history that helps me see the field. No theory; no linguistics. Everything non-English in translation, of course. My breadth ain't bad; my depth could use some work.

Since I've set up shop as a bit of an amateur specialist, though, my position is a little bit closer to the profs, except that where they argue from authority, I argue from enthusiam. My rhetorical trick here, as in many aspects of life, is to write with confidence, whether or not I know what I'm talking about.

To help undercut any pretence to authority, here's my 19th century Humiliation list, the most famous books of the period that I have not read, by language or field:

English: Eliot, Middlemarch; Dickens, David Copperfield, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities; Hardy: Tess of the D'Urbervilles and many more; Stoker, Dracula; Stevenson, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Almost no Christina Rossetti.

American: Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; Crane, The Red Badge of Courage; James, I'll let The Portrait of a Lady stand in for a larger Henry James problem; Thoreau, Walden. Almost no Emily Dickinson.

French: Hugo, Les Miserables; Zola, Germinal and others; Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil; Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé.

Russian: Dostoevsky, The Devils, The Idiot; Goncharov: Oblomov; Herzen: From the Far Shore. I know, these won't win the Humiliation game. I guess I've read the conventional Russian Top 10.

Norwegian and Swedish: Ibsen and Strindberg

German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Yiddish: Ha ha ha, these don't count, not their 19th century literatures. Not in the United States at least. None of these literatures have the prestige necessary to count as Humiliations. This is where the game breaks down. Goethe's Faust, Fontane's Effi Briest, Verga's Little Novels of Sicily, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman - they ought to be on everyone's "someday" list. But they're not. Still, for my own sake:

German: Keller, Green Henry.

Italian: Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree.

Spanish: Perez Galdos, Fortunata y Jacinta.

Portuguese: Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro.

Yiddish: This one will be checked off the list pretty soon, actually. Keep reading, steer clear of too much junk, and any fool can beat this game.


  1. For a personal recommendation, don't pass on Dostoevsky's The Devils. Most casual readers stay with C & P, The Brothers and Notes from Underground, but it would be a shame to not take the time to include The Devils. Both my wife and I consider it our favorite Dostoevsky and fervently recommend it to everyone-- for its art, its humor, its drama and its social observations. The Idiot? Because of the number of characters, its probably the most demanding, and without much payoff at first, but well worth it for the last section.

  2. Read A Tale of Two Cities because you will like it.

    I've never read Pride and Prejudice, which is shocking because it's exactly the sort of book I'm likely to have read. Alas.

  3. My rhetorical trick here, as in many aspects of life, is to write with confidence, whether or not I know what I'm talking about.

    Now I have to suspect you are in fact a professor going incognito: that's our trick!

    None of these literatures have the prestige necessary to count as Humiliations. This is where the game breaks down.

    So true. And nobody (including me) has said anything about Canadian literature either. Further, reading Bookphilia has made me very aware that I've never read any Japanese literature....

    I think we'll have to have a thread soon on 'obscure things I've read that other people probably haven't,' or 'favourite unknown books,' just to restore our confidence, not to mention our reputations.

  4. I adore A Tale of Two Cities and cannot imagine you would not find much to like in it. As for Hardy, I read Tess in high school and Far From the Madding Crowd later in life and found the first horrid (but also found my teacher horrid) and the second shockingly laugh-out-loud funny.

    I have much more serious humiliations in science than I do in lit. I assume that's because of expectations (I am a biologist so I should know more about biology) but also because well, I enjoy reading novels. I enjoy doing science, talking science and learning science. I do not enjoy reading science and just don't do it unless I absolutely have to.

  5. My own version of humiliation would be more like having people ask me questions about things that happen in the books I've already read. I would be humiliated at how much I've forgotten!

  6. To have a humiliations list I'd have to finally settle on one particular area of literature...but I can't seem to make that step, and my academic background is all over the place so that doesn't help at all. But I'm drawn to the idea of taking stock somehow of the gaps I've left behind as I trounced my way from country to county and era to era...

    ...except that where they argue from authority, I argue from enthusiam

    I should admit this is my perspective as well, and I do think enthusiasm counts.

  7. There's another way to look at this list. When I read it, I was thinking "How lucky he is to read these books for the very first time!" Of course, repeated readings of classics always bring more; in fact, Nabokov said that a book could NOT be read, but only re-read.

    Still, you've got some great reading times ahead. (Put Middlemarch towards the top of the list, and afterwards read Virginia Woolf's essay on it.)

  8. The testimonials for The Devils, A Tale of Two Cities, and Middlemarch are much appreciated. I vaguely plan to read everything I mentioned, someday. But your recommendations and nudges will have their effect.

    Dorothy, what are you doing? You're talk about something that is actually humiliating! That game is a lot less fun! I might have to adopt Rohan's idea of a self-congratulation session to restore my confidence.

    By sticking to the 19th century, I avoided having to list significant Humiliations in Canadian lit, or most Eastern European languages, or so I understand. Same goes for East Asian and South Asian literatures. The periodization has its own limits. But boy, could I be wrong abut this.

    Some of my enjoyment of this whole subject comes from my interest in literary history, which I know is not shared by everyone. It's just another way of organizing the data - by language, by date, by reputation. There are lots of other ways.

  9. The subject certainly came up at Christmas and what is remarkable about this list is at least few probably should have come up during a college preparatory high school curriculum. Given basically the same schooling, I sure didn't read Tale of Two Cities, Red Badge of Courage, or The Scarlet Letter, either.

  10. I wonder why we didn't read The Red Badge of Courage? The Dickens is too long and The Scarlet Letter has sexual subject matter, but the Stephen Crane should have been OK.

    Those of you who went to high schools where you read books twice as long as A Tale of Two Cities or books with actual sexual material, laugh away. The joke's on me.

  11. Well, now I know what to get you for next Christmas. I could have sworn that you had read Germinal. I thought I gave my copy to you after I read it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. So who the heck has my copy of Germinal?

    I have read Middlemarch, and rather wish I had not. I know people love it but those people are not me. As they say. I have not, however, read The Mill on the Floss. I probably will muddle through life the poorer for having not read The Mill on the Floss, but let us be perfectly clear: I have no intention of reading The Mill on the Floss.

    Furthermore, I cannot believe that you made it out of the school system you made it out of without reading The Scarlet Letter. It is my recollection that my school system, proximal to yours, was very keen on The Scarlet Letter.

    You read Tristram Shandy, right? Because if you have not, I'm going to be forced to come over there and stand over you while you read it. Which will be a fine thing; perhaps you & the frau & meine herr can do this with the inclusion of some kind of eating of barbecue and later attendance at a baseball game.

  12. There's no humiliation in not having read something - only the possibility of future pleasure. I can't imagine the joy of never having read Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona. They are just sitting out there waiting for you - coiled with energy, lean with intensity, relaxed with the perfect confidence of a writer in complete control of his material.

  13. Wait, what's Catriona? (looks up Catriona) It's the sequel to Kidnapped. Is it really that good? All right! (adds Catriona to my list). Thanks.

    The Tristram Shandy barbecue is such a good idea. We can build a miniature fort while the meat cooks. That one'll be a re-read, though.

    My 18th century coverage is pretty good (usual caveat: not in philosophy). Several years ago this blog would have been called, I dunno, "Gulliver Clinker", maybe. "Clarissa Crusoe Pickle".

    I should have a poll or contest sometime, something like "Which previously unread 18th century book should I read": Amelia, Cecelia, Roxana, or The Natural History of Selborne?

    I'm voting for the turtle.

  14. "It's just another way of organizing the data - by language, by date, by reputation. There are lots of other ways."

    I actually will recommend it now--if you're interested in this, do check out Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel: 1800-1900 (look! 19th century!). It's unusual, but the kind of thing I (geekily) consider super, super cool. Can't really explain what it is without seeing the diagrams. (I just flipped back through it pre-recommend, and now I'm going to have to re-read.)

    I'm one of those who read the super, super sexy Scarlet Letter in high school--we're not that squeamish in CT I guess. Red Badge of Courage, too. Two of my least favorite books of all time, in fact. The only Dickens we read the whole time was Great Expectations, freshman year.

  15. I haven't read Selbourne or Cecilia, but of the other two, I vote for Roxana. Defoe is so bizarre.

  16. Catriona has been badly underrated, because it's more romantic and less exciting than Kidnapped, but the two books go together.

  17. Gee whiz, I misspelled Cecilia. Sorry, Frances.

    Neil, Dorothy, Nicole - your votes all count, and have been duly registered. Roxana, Moretti, Stevenson. No promises on the timetable.

  18. "where they argue from authority, I argue from enthusiam"

    I think, as other have mentioned, that this is a fine place to argue from. For people who are not professors and are reading for the love of it, enthusiasm means more than an expert opinion.