These are books, plays, etc. that I keep hearing about that make me think I’m missing out on something significant.
That may be a mistake, that sense of missing out. I’ve noticed that people’s “Things I haven’t read” lists usually seem tinged with misplaced social anxiety. It’s one of the reasons this type of list is so irritating. The social value of having read The Old Man and the Sea is that I can now, comparatively late in life, tell people I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea—which is very close to zero value. The pleasure of reading it was non-zero but pretty low on the scale compared to, say, an Agatha Christie novel (certainly lower than certain other Hemingway stories). The real value of reading it was that I figured out what irritates me about Hemingway and what I like about him, and what makes him as widely read and admired and influential as he is. So I now have some opinions. I also now have the right to my opinions, which is a certain base satisfaction of its own. I still need to find something worthwhile to do with these opinions. But they’re there if I need them.
Luckily, most of the things I read to avoid missing out on are a great pleasure. Great Expectations, Howards End, the Book of Ecclesiastes, A Doll’s House, and Portnoy’s Complaint were all wonderful. Wuthering Heights was repellent but riveting, and the same for Of Human Bondage and Candide. Even if I didn’t have any useful opinions about those books, I wouldn’t regret talking myself into reading them.
My only fear about is that I will talk myself into finishing something irrelevant instead of coming to understand why it isn’t worth finishing. (Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books suggests that even excellent books may not always need finishing.)
In no fixed order, in no way complete, to be updated when I feel like it: …
Moby-Dick: Currently listening to an audiobook. This audio version is really well done, but I think I missed something by listening to it rather than reading it with my eyes. Even at the height of the action, Ishmael (Melville?) writes some long, convoluted sentences.
- The Iliad: Need to look into translations. This seems like the kind of thing that can easily be killed by a bad or archaic or overly fussy translation. (Edited to add: Why is everyone in this book such an ASSHOLE?)
- The Odyssey
- Twelfth Night
- The Merchant of Venice
Crime and Punishment This character list was a big help, though it names Lebeziatnikov twice.
- War and Peace
Pride and Prejudice Surprised how much I liked this one. Might try some more Austen.
Anne Frank’s diary—Preferably an uncensored version. Wow, this book is a breath of fresh air. The jacket copy on my edition talks about Anne having “adult wisdom and views beyond her years,” but that’s crap. In fact, she’s an utterly ordinary teenager: sensitive to things adults fail to notice, ruthlessly critical of herself and others, lonely. In some better world, a renowned journalist turns eighty-three this June.
Beloved: Got an audiobook.
- The Color Purple
- The Grapes of Wrath
Of Mice and Men
- Don Quixote
- Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- À la recherche du temps perdu/Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time (update: Swann’s Way is amazing)
Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s translation—very good!)
A Tale of Two Cities
- Oliver Twist
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
- Kafka’s diaries—Assuming I can stomach them. There’s something awful about reading something the author never meant to publish and thought he wanted to destroy.
- The Cherry Orchard
- The Sorrows of Young Werther: I started this but Werther was such a drip I gave up. I think it’s worth another try though.
- Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: Listening to an audio version.
The Screwtape Letters: Just started this. Amazingly clever writing. C. S. Lewis often offends me with his slightly arrogant, scolding brand of Christianity, but the preachiness is constantly tempered by earnest, merciless self-reflection.
- Tristram Shandy
The Book of Job: Listened to an audiobook of the American Standard Version, very confused. I’m going to try another version. Tried Young’s Literal Translation and then skimmed a simple English version (here). I think it’s just confusing because God is a very strange character and Job’s friends all kind of sound alike.
- The Book of Revelation
Orlando: Got an audiobook of this.
Stranger in a Strange Land
- In Cold Blood
- Gravity’s Rainbow
- Snow Crash
- American Pastoral
- Rabbit, Run
And Then There Were None Good times.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: I’m sad to already be spoiled for this but it does sound really interesting. Kind of cool.
Death of a Salesman Hope to see a production at some point.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Might borrow a paperback translation.
- The Satanic Verses: Got an unwieldy hardcover of this.
Winesburg, Ohio Much as I enjoyed parts of this book, the stories all have an undeniable sameness, and the prose style, like most very distinctive styles, becomes cloying after a while. All the characters struggle with roughly the same inability to express themselves; that may be why, when they do manage to speak, their voices are frequently identical. Reading more than one story at a time, therefore, takes away some of their power, and I admire the individual pieces more than the cycle as a whole.
Treasure Island: Listening to an audio version. Marvelous.
- The Tale of Genji
“Brokeback Mountain”: Never saw the movie, curious about the short story. Liked it.
The House of Mirth: Currently listening to an audiobook. Just finished this. Holy shit.
- Good Omens: My geeky friends tell me this is a must. Looks like a fun read.
Pale Fire: I can’t believe I haven’t read this. I’m fascinated by bizarre misreadings of texts, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious. That was pretty sweet. I might have to go back and reread for the clues I missed.
- Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales
The Age of Innocence !
- The Human Stain
On the Road
- Death in Venice
“Hapworth 16, 1924”—May as well bite the bullet. I feel like I just went to see Rocky Horror for the first time.
The Cyberiad I can’t believe I never read this before. Fantastic.
Relativity: The Special and General Theory—Reading various online versions.
- The Origin of Species
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Great Gatsby—I read this as a teenager but it didn’t interest me at the time. Bit better this time around.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”
- Lost in the Funhouse
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Invisible Man (Ellison, not Wells)
The Brothers Karamazov !
- King Lear
Just So Stories
- The Federalist Papers
- Democracy in America
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Sense and Sensibility (spoilers!): I’m so pissed that Marianne married Colonel Brandon.
- Histoire d’O/Story of O
- 120 Days of Sodom
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
- Bleak House
- The Killer Inside Me
- Le Deuxième Sexe/The Second Sex
Venus in Furs
The Possessed/The Demons
The Communist Manifesto—to be strictly truthful, I listened to it and understood very, very little.
- The Book of Psalms
The Constitution of the United States—Seeing as I live here and all. A pretty easy read. Of course, it’s hard to know how much of it I actually understood for practical purposes.
“The Things They Carried”—I’m not sure if I’ve ever read this entire story or not. Maybe the others in the same collection too.
Amerika—It’s kind of weird that I haven’t read this yet, right?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle !
A Brief History of Time
- Barthelme’s Sixty Stories
- Everything That Rises Must Converge
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- The Kreutzer Sonata (Tolstoy)
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
- Our Mutual Friend
- We Need to Talk About Kevin
- Oryx and Crake
Other possible additions:
- A Suitable Boy: Got a massive hardcover, suitable only if I find a good place to sit.
- Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: Sounds slow and difficult but interesting. Maybe I’ll just watch the BBC series.
- The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion: Hoping someone publishes an abridged version someday.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The Recognitions
- The Corrections or Freedom
- The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings
- Naked Lunch
- A Passage to India
The Hunger Games
- A Lover’s Discourse
- The Waves
- The Twilight books—I have to admit, what with all the rants and parodies and wringing of hands, I feel like I’ve read them already.
House of Leaves
Strangers on a Train
- The Left Hand of Darkness
- Robinson Crusoe
- The Magic Mountain
- The Bhagavad Gita
- The Painted Bird
- Peace, by Gene Wolfe—I’ve had this author recommended to me several times, and the book sounds interesting in a meta kind of way.
- Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
- The Aeneid
- Mansfield Park
- Ovid’s Metamorphoses
- The works of Andrea Dworkin
- The Name of the Rose
- Foucault’s Pendulum
- The works of George Sand (update: read The Devil’s Pool; it was okay)
The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories (Anton Chekhov)
- Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
- Ancillary Justice
- The Journalist and the Murderer
- The Violent Bear It Away
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other works of Thomas Hardy
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson—Wow, that was weirder than I was expecting.
- The works of Friedrich Schiller
- The Magicians
- The Theory of the Leisure Class
- The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
Postscript: I forgot to mention the other reason this type of list is so irritating—the stench of acquisitiveness it gives off. As though every Significant Book were a merit badge to be collected, instead of (as it usually proves to be) a little world of its own. The desire to read lots of Significant Books is admirable in people who are just setting out to educate themselves; in people who have degrees and convoluted literary opinions, it’s another matter. I don’t mind being a snob, but I mind being a hobbyist. I have all the instincts of a hobbyist, a compulsive collector, and I don’t like to see them eat the things I love. Much worse than an irritation.
Postpostscript: If I remember right, this list originally contained around fifty things to read/listen to/consume. As of October 2012, it contains eighty, of which I’ve read twenty. At this rate, it will contain an extra ten unread things every six months. Presumably the rate at which I add things will diminish as I work my way through the canon and narrow my focus, while my reading rate will remain constant, so I’ll eventually catch up. Who are you calling a hobbyist, asshole?
Postpostpostscript: 39/100 as of April 2014.
“I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” —Mr. Knightley in Emma, by Jane Austen
“[A]ny list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not.” —John Searle