November 7, 2011

The books we pretend to have read


Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, has written a delightful list of the great works of literature he has not read:

I have never got through Henry Green’s Living or Concluding, though neither one is a long book, and I have sometimes heard myself call Green my “favorite” postwar English novelist, as if I had read enough to have one. I have never got through Jane Eyre or Giovannis Room or Journey to the End of the Night or Zenos Conscience or Pierre—I have never got through chapter one of Pierre. I have never read The Life of Henry Brulard and am not sure it’s even a novel….I have never read Tender Is the Night, but just the other night someone used it as an example of something, and I nodded.

Confessionals and mea culpas have long been my favorite literary modes, and Mr. Stein’s list gives me great cathartic pleasure. I have spent most of my adult life adopting an attitude of knowing more about culture than I actually do, of nodding sagely at famous-sounding names and then rushing to Google them the moment the coast is clear. I remember once, in graduate school, arguing fiercely for half-an-hour about specific points related to Absalom, Absalom!, a book I had not held or seen, much less read. Indeed, at times it seems that half of a literature degree involves a love of books, and the other half a love of bullshit. I still have a nasty habit of reading only first and last chapters, of dipping into books just long enough to acquaint myself with themes and styles, so that I may make smiling reference to them later on—a smile that does nothing to dispel the lurking shame of the fraud. My desire remains undiminished—I buy books instantly, eagerly, daily—but my will is weak, and the shelves fill up with great works that might as well be pulp. These gaps and holes become more pronounced when books become your job; a desire to seem smart gives one a personal inclination to exaggerate, but when one works in the publishing industry it becomes a professional impulse, a vanity turned job requirement.

And so it’s refreshing to see someone as prominent in the literary culture as Mr. Stein confess to the defeats, deceits, and deficiencies inherent to the culture trade. To throw up his hands and say, “It was too much for me, and I didn’t have the interest, fortitude, or time.” We all start off reading with an honest urge to understand, but it often proves easier to pretend than to know. And when you note the gap between the fleeting hours and the endless library, between what you wish you were with what you are, it is certainly tempting to bridge the chasm with a little lie.

As much as I appreciate Stein’s gesture—it brings me quite a bit of joy—I don’t think I’ll be following his lead. He is the editor of The Paris Review, and that entitles him to the privilege of modesty. For me, I won’t be writing any catalogs of lacks. Rather, I’ll go on smiling and nodding my head. And if you would be so kind, please assume that I’ve read every single book there is.