Sunday, April 12, 2009

Required Reading & Great Expectations

Somewhere in the midst of its many seasons, an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was made in which Ray challenges the school board because he feels his daughter has too much homework. In actuality, he didn't want to go through all work required to help her it. As with sitcoms, a lesson was learned and things turned out just fine. However, in the course of the episode Ray is forced to admit to his mother that he never read Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Doris Roberts' long-island accented response has stuck with me ever since: You never read Tom Sawyer?!

There are novels, both literary and not, that the greater society simply expects everyone to be familiar with. For the most part, these are novels that are taught in high school when the playing field is generally pretty level. Those that don't fall into this camp are usually those that became popular in a zeitgeisty wild fire. These books don't necessarily have to be well written. Valley of the Dolls, The Di Vinci Code, and newest of the bunch, Twilight, come to mind. Oprah certainly must play a part in this in our society as well. For a long time I believed Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to a recent release. It turns out Oprah just threw it on her book club stacks and made it a best seller. It's actually from the 1985. 

To be thrown into a conversation about a book you haven't read is one of the more embarrassing situations you can find yourself in-- but it's bound to happen at some point. Even the most prolific readers can't manage to knock out all the books that society expects them to have tackled (and in my experience they often avoid literary fiction for crappy genre fiction). The simple fact is, that society-- that broad general term-- dictates that a person read more than they can unless they're actively pursuing those particular novels, or perhaps have had the very ideal conditions. For some people this is a complete non-issue-- the results of that approach are here.

As a writer, particularly a writer interested in fiction, the feeling is compounded in me. The number of books I'm expected to have read is more than that of the average person-- and justifiably so--  but what this does is further aggravate and pester. There is, after all, only so much time in the day, in the month, and in the year. Between staying current, reading what you want, and reading what you should a person is bound to only manage a minimum in each category. Perhaps faster readers have an easier time, but I only managed to read a pathetic 19 novels in 2008-- only one of which was released that year. To make matters worse, all of this is to say nothing of Non-fiction, Graphic Novels, Poetry, and Drama. 

Thinking on all of this made me decide to put a small list together of all the books society expects me to have read, and share my ten most embarrassing over sights. Not to delay the inevitable, here is the sum of my ignorance: 

  1. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling 
  2. The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 
  4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville 
  5. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne 
  6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 
  10. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 
Damn you, Doris Roberts! There is it. Maybe it's not the most embarrassing line-up I could put together-- there were certainly notable omissions -- but it's a pretty bad none the less. What are the books you're most embarrassed to admit you haven't read? 


Kiriska said...

Haha, wow. Well, while I can't say that I feel as much pressure as you to read so many things, I can definitely sympathize to some extent. There are many things that culture says I should have experienced that I haven't, though I find this easier to recognize in the movies I haven't seen moreso than the books I haven't read -- then again, that's probably because so few of the people I hang out with are well read and in general prefer movies to books. So I guess it's only fair that you haven't read Harry Potter because I (still) haven't watched Forrest Gump.

I don't usually fret too much over not being able to participate in a conversation involving something I haven't seen/read. It's just always been like that, as far as the general society goes. People will be over there talking about last night's Lost or House or Project Runway and I'll have absolutely no idea what the hell they're talking about. As far as my niche society goes though (read: the anime nerds of the Internet), I guess I feel slightly more embarrassed about not having seen or read a lot of well-known classics. I could give you a list of those titles, but I'm not sure they'd mean much to you. :P

Oh, well. Of your list, I've only read Harry Potter, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby, the lattern two of which I was forced to and have no great love for. (We also read Huck Finn instead of Tom Sawyer.) I want to read Slaughterhouse Five, but don't really foresee that happening any time soon. Since I'm more bothered by not having seen certain anime and manga, I guess that's what I'd spend my free time doing.

Joe said...

Haha-- I haven't read Huck Finn either!

I think this kind of discussion can apply to anything in which someone can reply, scandalized, "You haven't seen/read/been to/heard BLAH" I suppose the embarresment comes from a feeling of expectation. Expectation rises when it's your niche.

I was never a Harry Potter fan kid because I always wanted to separate myself from the trends when I was younger. I tried Sorcerer's Stone when I was like 12 or something, but it couldn't win over that. Anyway, I've been meaning to get around to them.

Kiriska said...

Yeah, now that you mention it, there are also tons and tons of bands/musicians that I haven't heard.

I think everyone wanted to distinguish themselves from the crowd when they were younger. I didn't read Harry Potter until around when the 4th book came out (and then I read all four of them in four consecutive days). These days, I'll at least intend to check out everything I think is interested. If it's popular, great. If not, great. But yeah, I love Harry Potter on the whole and highly recommend it, even if I could go on for thousands and thousands of words ranting about what I don't like about it. XD