Glaring Omissions

It seems only fair that after exposing my students’ shocking ignorance of Hopkins not long ago, I should come clean about some of the many gaps in my own reading experience. I’m inspired by the frank admissions (and often compelling justifications) posted by the contributors at The Millions, including Emily Wilkinson’s disavowal of “burly man-authors” (the excerpt she includes from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is certainly enough to keep him on my “not reading” pile indefinitely!) and Kevin Hartnett’s admission that he has made many “false starts” with the modernists, including Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (hey, me too!).

There are always too many things to read, so one issue this kind of exercise raises for me is why a particular author or title matters as an omission. Sometimes (especially for an English professor) ignorance is the problem: you really should know about someone influential or innovative or great in a particular tradition so that you understand the genre or period well and can justify speaking on it as any kind of expert. Sometimes (for any reader) you believe your intellectual, aesthetic, or emotional life will be enriched by a particular reading experience. Sometimes you’re curious to see what the fuss is about. Sometimes you want to challenge yourself.

In my own case, I have glaring omissions that fall into all of these categories. The books I feel obligated to catch up on for professional reasons are really the least interesting to reflect on: canonical stuff I’ve just never gotten around to, partly because I do so much rereading of the big ones I routinely teach. As a Victorianist, I really should read the Dickens novels I don’t know, including Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Old Curiosity Shop. I should probably read some Thackeray besides Vanity Fair (I did read The History of Henry Esmond once, but I’ve repressed it). There are a lot of Trollope novels I haven’t read yet (I think I’ve read 18, but when you remember he wrote 47, that’s not impressive), and some Hardy (I really don’t enjoy reading Hardy, sigh). And there are all kinds of “lesser” novelists I’ve never touched, including Charlotte Yonge, George Meredith, and Disraeli (shhh, don’t tell). My concern here is almost totally about my credibility as an ‘expert’ on the 19th-century novel. I don’t in fact feel I’m missing out much as a reader–though I’d be pleased to be surprised about that. In earlier fiction, I never finished Tristram Shandy–but in my defense, I’ve read not just Pamela, but Pamela II, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. I’m curious about some of the Romantic women novelists I have read about but not read for myself–but not really curious, because I’ve read excerpts and they often strike me (as the lesser Victorian novelists do) as writing books that are more stimulating as cultural artefacts than as, well, books to read.

There are a lot of 20th-century novelists I haven’t read. My professional conscience bothers me about the modernists, but I’m morally certain I would need support to get through Ulysses, never mind Finnegan’s Wake, so my secret ambition is one day to audit my brilliant colleague Len Diepeveen‘s Joyce seminar and see how it’s done. Woolf I admire wholeheartedly as a critic and essayist, but so far as a novelist she eludes me. Unlike Joyce, however, whom I regard as an obligation, Woolf draws me personally because of what comes across as the beauty and clarity of her mind in her other writing, and because of what I’ve read about her novels and what they reach for. Also, some of the other readers I know and love best are passionately devoted to her: if she’s their friend, one day she’ll be mine too.

Moving further into the 20th century, I lose my sense of what’s an obvious omission, except perhaps Salman Rushdie. I’ve read none of his novels; I don’t expect to like them–not my kind of thing–but I might be surprised. I think Iris Murdoch is the mid-century author I’m most interested in trying, largely because what I’ve read about the philosophical reach of her approach to the novel. I feel as if I’ve read a decent amount of contemporary British fiction (Ishiguro, McEwan, Zadie Smith, and so on), but I’ll be teaching a new survey course for the department next year (Brit Lit 1800 to the Present) so no doubt, as I prepare for it, I’ll be learning about the unknown unknowns that are in fact serious gaps.

I’ve stuck to British literature so far, but in terms of my own enrichment, I think the omissions I most regret and hope to remedy are in the French and Russian novel. I have my sights set on Tolstoy at the moment: I read War and Peace long ago, but I don’t think that counts, so I am very happy to have received a handsome new edition from my Christmas wish list. The posts on Balzac at Wuthering Expectations whetted my appetite for some of that, I haven’t read Proust, and I have read no Dostoyevsky either.

As Archdeacon Grantly would say, Good Heavens! If I keep this up, they’ll probably revoke my tenure, my degree, and my driver’s license. Now I feel I’ll have to post a long list of things I have read, just to ward off criticism. (Also, I suddenly regret having spent so much time reading obscure works by mediocre 19th-century historians….speaking of which, all you smug Woolf-reading Sterne experts, how much Agnes Strickland have you read?) But if they ever read this, my students will probably feel just fine about what they haven’t gotten around to yet.

What about you, Dear Readers? Anyone want to ‘fess up? I can’t promise absolution, but given what I’ve admitted to, you know you won’t end up looking bad by comparison.

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