WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Shelf awareness

Recently I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time in my life. How did that happen? How’d I get to this ripe age (speaking of grapes) without gobbling up this piece of classic American fiction?

Partly, I think it was already kind of in my head, as one of the pillars of our literary culture. Same with The Great Gatsby; you might not have read it but you feel like you have. The Sound and the Fury? Maybe you’ve read a third of it and gave up, but you got the idea. Some books are just like that—they’re in the ether and you absorb them subconsciously. Or you see the movie.

All of this got me thinking about other books that have eluded me or that I’ve avoided. Some are literary, some popular, but for one reason or another I never got up the gumption to crack their spines. Somehow I slipped through college without reading The Scarlet Letter, even though it was assigned. But I did manage War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov (plus Oblomov!) in one grueling Russian lit. class. How? I have no memory of it …

I’m pretty sure I’ll never read The Goldfinch, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer. I also don’t think Stephen King is required reading, but that’s just me.

Personally I know I’m awfully weak on everything from Dickens to Henry James, Jane Austen to Erica Jong. I’ve let down generations of great poets. Stopped reading a lot of short stories in the ‘90s. I owe Gravity’s Rainbow a big apology. But the fact is, we only have so much time, and life is literally too short to read everything you’d like to read. You have to pick and choose.

Are there any big titles you know you should have gotten to by now but haven’t? Ulysses anybody? (I pushed my way through it when I was 22.) Finnegan’s Wake? Never!

So fess up. Tell everyone what you’ve skipped in favor of the fun stuff.

20 comments on “Shelf awareness

  1. denizb33
    December 6, 2021

    I know that feeling, of thinking you’ve read something just because it’s in the zeitgeist! A couple of the ones I’ve never read and likely won’t get around to are Catch-22 and On the Road. I’ve read Anna Karenina, and still hope to someday get around to War and Peace… I love Dostoyevsky’s White Nights; this year’s goal (or the next 12 months or so, I mean) is to read The Brothers Karamazov as part of the readalong (https://leapinglife.com/2021/06/29/announcing-the-brothers-karamazov-readalong-karamazovreadalong/)!

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      So interesting which books appeal to us when we’re younger. Catch-22 was one of the first books I read as an aspiring writer. But I’m glad I was “forced” to read those Russians in college! The Karamazov readalong ought to be a great way to approach that book.

  2. pinklightsabre
    December 6, 2021

    I will say I’d recommend The Goldfinch! Why aren’t you “going there?” My list is way too long to put here. But I’m awfully thin in areas I feel I shouldn’t. I’m with you on Finnegans Wake. With the exception of his play and that one I read the others, but that’s because I took a class on Joyce in college. Pretty much all the popular stuff has missed me and lots of the literary. When we were over in Germany on our extended trip I wrote a list and made a dent in it, including stuff like Catch 22 and Siddhartha. Those last two, and others from that list, are surprisingly short! And what a relief that is. To read something good and dense and do it in like a week, without it feeling like work.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      I was probably influenced by critics when The Goldfinch came out, and when I read excerpts I didn’t really take to the style.

      I was just dabbling in Dubliners recently and remembering how excellent that one is.

      My college roommate and I used to keep reading lists and compete over who crossed titles off of them fastest. I’m sure he did. I wish I still had one to see how I’ve done over the decades!

      • pinklightsabre
        December 6, 2021

        I like your list competition, that’s cool! And yes to Dubliners, “a painful case.” Right?!

      • pinklightsabre
        December 6, 2021

        I read the Goldfinch because it was a friend’s favorite book and I think I wanted to understand her better by reading it. You ever done that? And then I was kind of like wow, when I read that and A Little Life (because those were her two favorites). And like 1500 pages of self-abuse between the two.

  3. Pamela Beckford
    December 6, 2021

    I have found that were required reading in school (both high school and college) were wasted on youth. Re-reading them as an adult I have gotten so much more out of them.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      That’s so true. Your perspective is so different as an adult, and without the pressure to read something you approach it in a completely different way. I remember reading “Light in August” in high school and going “WTF?!”

  4. loristory
    December 6, 2021

    Shakespeare. I know I should do it, but whenever I ask myself “to read or not to read” him, I always answer “not.” I did see the movie, “King Lear,” with Anthony Hopkins. Does that count?

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      I saw Hopkins do Lear on stage once, and I have to think that was better than reading the play. I’m not sure I’ve read Shakespeare since college tho. I fee like I should. He’s totally brill, but my brain has trouble with Elizabethan English. But hey, we can all get the gist of Romeo and Juliet by seeing the new West Side Story, right? 😉

  5. Audrey Driscoll
    December 6, 2021

    Haha. Sometimes I wonder about the great books I’ll never read because l’m reading new works by indies!
    I read heavy Russian classics in my teens to show off, but doubt if I was capable of appreciating them.
    Too bad keeping books on your bedside table doesn’t have an osmotic effect.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      I have to think someday they’ll come up with a way to upload books into our brains. 🤯

      • Audrey Driscoll
        December 6, 2021

        But only if we want ’em in there. 😉

  6. kingmidget
    December 6, 2021

    I’ve always been averse to most of the “classics.” I have read Gatsby and think it’s the biggest piece of schlock ever. I’ve never understood the story’s appeal. I’ve read my share of Steinbeck and Hemingway and a few others, but for the most part, I just find it difficult to get through most books that are considered “classics.”

    My parents have a number of collections on their book shelf that include books by a number of the old-time classics. A few months ago, I borrowed a couple. Of Human Bondage and The Sound and The Fury. I’ve tried to start each and haven’t got much past ten pages. But they remain on my nightstand because … god damit … I’m gonna keep trying and trying.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 6, 2021

      I always try to remind myself that they were writing for a different kind of reader back then, in a different kind of market. People wanted giant books that were serialized over a year or more. They didn’t seem as intimidating that way I bet. Let’s face it, modern readers aren’t the target audience, so it’s a stretch for a lot of us. That said, I did love Grapes of Wrath, and there are plenty of books written before, say, 1950 that I’ll always love and think about.

      • kingmidget
        December 6, 2021

        Yes. Books from the past were certainly written in a different style and readers had a different perspective. As much as I hate the modern day need to grab the reader in the first few words, paragraphs, or pages, one of the issues I have with the classics is that it takes soooooooo loooooooong for something to finally happen.

  7. justdrivewillyou
    December 6, 2021

    I was a fan of Stephen King for awhile but, in general, I’ve never been very bookish, undoubtedly to my detriment. I’ve always liked a good movie, though.

  8. denizb33
    December 7, 2021

    Ooh, I loved Of Human Bondage! I never would have thought of Somerset Maugham as a “stuffy classic”. Maybe because I didn’t have to read him at school but discovered him on my own. On the other hand, we read Joyce and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky at school and I liked them fine. But Maugham feels different, if that makes any sense. I’ve read nearly all his stuff!

Chime in

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on December 6, 2021 by in Et alia and tagged , .
%d bloggers like this: