Jan/Feb 2001 Salon

Required Reading

by Paul J. Sampson

Not long ago, I got into a literary argument in which I had to reveal that I had not finished reading the book I was attacking. Far from being embarrassed, I simply said that the book irritated me too much to finish, and used that as evidence that I was right in my low opinion of it.

Maybe that isn't very compelling logic, but it did get me out of an argument in which I was about to become as tedious as the book I didn't like.

And it reminded me that my advancing age has one advantage. While I hope I will always be learning something, I am no longer a student. I will never again have to pass a test based on my knowledge of a book, let alone one I don't like. I am not a teacher, so I will never have to read a book I don't like in order to know more about it than my students. I no longer have a Required Reading List.

I should add, for the sake of my self-esteem, that I have already read a lot of the books that are on such lists. In 1998, Random House published a list of "the 100 best novels in English." There were endless debates about the content of the Random House list, but I'll bet that most people did the same thing I did. They counted up the number of the listed books they had read. (Answer to your unasked question: None of your business. I got a passing grade.) If you want to check your own score, the list is still available on the Internet at: http://www.bookstones.com/shelf/recommend/modlibnovel.html.

That list brought out strong feelings about canonical lists. Many of the objections to that particular list were political: not enough women, not enough people of color, too few genders, too many dead white guys, too few contemporaries. Rival lists sprang up, including some that clearly reflected ballot-box stuffing by promoters of various authors or agendas. Voices were raised. Words flew. E-mails clogged the wires.

The whole question of authority was raised anew: Who gave anyone the right to define a canon? Soon there were as many churches as believers, and everyone was Pope. Harold Bloom was il Papa di tutti i Papi, Pope of all the Popes. I know this because he said so, ex cathedra.

Heretics were identified, expelled, found new adherents, rose again. Every political camp had its own politically correct canon. One widely circulated list, compiled by votes on the Internet, had clusters of selections that smelled strongly of orchestrated campaigns, like four novels by Ayn Rand. The same list was stiff with science fiction, including Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. Ya gotta wonder, because the same list had obscure treasures like At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. Who were these voters, anyway?

Nearly every list I saw had Joyce's Ulysses, and most had some more that you have to doubt were really that widely read. Some were probably included not because the voters had actually read them, but because they knew they were supposed to. Finnegans Wake was on the Random House list, for instance.

That brings up the subjects of lying and cheating. Based on my own bad behavior, I think that a number of people give themselves credit for reading books that they haven't finished or dragged themselves through inattentively in order to pass a test. I will cop to most of Henry James's novels, myself. Somehow I managed to appear to have read The Golden Bowl. I think the statute of limitations has run on my grade in Victorian American Lit, so I will admit I read an outline and as little of the actual book as I felt safe doing.

I'm not the only one coming clean. On a literary e-mail list, an actual English professor admitted he hadn't read War and Peace. Then he asked, all innocently, "Is it any good?" Well, if you ask me, I'll have to refer you to someone who's read it. I haven't, but I've heard it's pretty good. Of course, the people who told me that may not have read it, either.


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