I could tell you that I loved "The Portrait of a Lady," "War and Peace” and “Pride and Prejudice,” but, really, what's the point?
Among book lovers of my general description (female, 40-something, recovering English major) these books are the literary equivalent of laughter and long walks on the beach: universally beloved and, for that very reason, virtually worthless as indicators of individual tastes and preferences.
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If I told you, on the other hand, that I've made a conscious decision not to read Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," despite my fascination with the period and the author's literary contemporaries — despite, in fact, my deep desire to be someone who appreciates a big fat novel by Ernest Hemingway — I'd be revealing a good deal.
On the most basic level, I'd be telling you that my interest in strong, silent men doing stereotypically manly things (say, guerrilla warfare) in stereotypically manly ways (laconically, fearlessly) is pretty much non-existent, even if the writing is heavenly and the author won a Nobel Prize for literature.
I'd also be hinting pretty strongly that I'm not a huge fan of macho posturing, and that Hemingway, in his most hyper-masculine guise, ticks me off in a fundamental way. You probably wouldn't be too surprised to hear that I'm the kind of gal who gives herself a pass on pretending to enjoy major league sports, cheap beer and off-trail camping.
In short, you'd know real and specific information about me, information that my passion for "Portrait" does not, alas, provide.
I started thinking about the books that book lovers don't read earlier this year when New York Times book critic Janet Maslin revealed that she'd never read "The Feminine Mystique." I've read Maslin, on and off, for years, and never quite felt like I could pinpoint my vague sense of unease. She's smart; she's engaging. But there's a certain lightness in her approach that makes me think we are most emphatically not two peas in a pod.
The "Mystique" reveal put all of that into focus. In bypassing the feminist classic that ushered in her generation of working women — and, arguably, her career — Maslin made a profoundly apolitical statement. I respect her right to rise above the fray, but I can't relate to it.
Once I became consciously aware of the unread book issue, I began seeing it in all sorts of places: Pinterest and Tumblr pages, and Goodreads, home to the hilarious list, "The Best Books You Will Never Read. . . EVER" (No. 1: James Joyce's "Ulysses") by Andrew Hill, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. Bloggers, including The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, have tackled the issue with bracing honesty.
Stein, who never made it through "Jane Eyre," agrees that our literary omissions may say more about us than the books we've actually read.
"If you're the sort of person who reads a lot of one particular kind of book, say novels, and there's some novel that everyone expects you to have read and you haven't, there's probably a pretty good reason," he says.
A hundred years ago, when books were less available, the reading list for an educated person was fairly clear-cut, says Hill, who teaches a great books course. Today, with libraries, the Internet and electronic books, our choices are virtually unlimited, and deciding what not to read has become an important part of literary life.
In his own reading, Hill has a 50-page rule; if a great book can't give him reason to continue after that, he's free to move on.
Among the books he hasn't read, Marcel Proust's 4,200-page novel, "In Search of Lost Time."
"In the abstract, when I studied French, I thought: That's really fabulous," Hill says of Proust's impressionistic masterpiece. "And when I kind of got down to actually undertaking it I thought, 'Really, I just can't do this. I've got too many other things that I'd like to do, and all that reminiscing about cookies or cakes — petites madeleines — I can do without that.' "
Hill says that he has great respect for "In Search of Lost Time" — and all the other books on his "Books You Will Never Read" list. They wouldn't be there if he didn't acknowledge their greatness on some level. But, while he believes in reading books that challenge your assumptions and make you grow intellectually, he also believes that the process should be pleasurable.
Among the books that tend to show up on haven't-read lists: "Ulysses," "In Search of Lost Time," William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov."
Looking through his own list of unreads — among them, "any Faulkner novel all the way through besides 'The Sound and the Fury'" — Stein notes that there are some common characteristics.
"A lot of these are major books, and they're not comfortable books, and I think as you get older and you're not in school, and especially if your job involves reading and writing, at the end of the day you might find yourself gravitating toward more domestic books," he says. " 'Invisible Man' is great, but never pretended to be neatly joined or easy-going. And Faulkner — Faulkner!"
You'll hear about misgivings when you talk to serious readers about their unread books — shame is a word that comes up — but, scratch below the surface, and you'll find a certain exuberance, too.
Julia Stern, Northwestern University professor of English and American studies, says she could rationalize not yet having read Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," saying they're not directly connected to what she teaches, but that's a cop-out.
"I guess if we wanted to do a 'reading' of that, we could say, she's not particularly interested in the young Turk male literary tradition," she says.
Of "Infinite Jest" she adds, "Don't you think it's just so overwhelming, physically?" (Yes.)
Of Franzen's public reservations after "The Corrections" became an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2001, she says, "Jonathan Franzen's behavior and then his impertinence was just so repulsive. Is this guy living on Mars that he thinks he's so above Oprah's imprimatur? That whole thing was just so delicious from a feminist point of view."
In my experience, letting a landmark book go is bittersweet; you're admitting to yourself that maybe you're just not patient, broad-minded, imaginative, spiritual or worldly enough for this particular literary treat. But there's also a certain hard-won self-knowledge in the moment when you can confidently say, this one just isn't for me.
You've shed an illusion and you're moving on, more limited than you might have wished, but also freer, franker and more fully yourself.
Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun