Every day, I’m aghast by how many books there are that I haven’t read, that I should read. Every time I go to a bookstore (which is relatively often at times like now, when I’m living in a city with good independent bookstores), I come out with more books that sit piled on my desk, or occasionally actually do get read. Every time I go into a library, I check out armfuls, and too often they come due before I’ve read them. I’m painfully aware of how little I’ve read, particularly the painfully obvious things that someone who wants to do what I want to do should be reading. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve smiled and nodded and pretended to know what’s going on when someone references Foucault, for example.
Sometimes I blame my post-Prop. 13 California public school for my under-read nature. I thought only this could explain my glaring gaps in classic British and American literature in comparison to my peers from east-coast schools. But maybe it’s just that I’m lazy; the internet, with its easy access to blogs, newspapers and magazines, means that I read fewer novels. I also favor the esoteric over the edifying; I’ve been meaning to read Jane Eyre for months, but every time I think I finally will go get it from the library, I get sidetracked by another memoir of gay life in the 1970s.
The British academic-humor novelist David Lodge writes about characters who play a game called “Humiliation,” wherein they try to win by naming the most embarrassing work of literature they haven’t read—one English professor wins by confessing that he’s never read Hamlet. Well, I’ve read Hamlet (and I was, if I say so myself, a very good Horatio in my 12th-grade English class’s reading), but I could think up a dozen equally embarrassing things I’ve never read. Jane Eyre, for instance, as I mentioned above. Pride and Prejudice, or indeed anything else by Austen. The Grapes of Wrath (which I faked my way through having read when it was assigned in 11th-grade English). Anything by Hemingway. I started One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but never finished it. I’ve never read one of the more “grown-up” Dickenses—just A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. Never read a Russian novel.
I also have to read theory, the stuff I need to talk about gender and sexuality with my friends and peers. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told that something I wrote related to an idea advanced by Judith Butler—but I’ve never read Butler. Never read Eve Sedgwick. Never, as I mentioned above, read Foucault. Or Freud. I purport to be an American cultural history major, but I never finished Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and as far as most other famous American historians are concerned, I can only recognize names and titles. I came to American countercultures, queer theory, and literary history through the Beats, but of Kerouac I’ve only read On the Road. Of Burroughs I’ve only read Naked Lunch. I have, however, read quite a lot of Ginsberg.
Of course, it does me little good complaining if I keep bringing home book after book that I never read. This summer, partly thanks to my daily commute on the bus, I’ve rediscovered reading for pleasure, and it’s been incredibly exciting—I can’t think of the last time I read so many books in one summer, but it must have been before high school, before I was really reading only adult books. But as I take on the task of catching up in the adult world of cultural literacy and start the background reading I’ll need to dive into my independent work at school, I’m daunted by how much there is to go. I’m sure that when I’m really an adult, I’ll still have glaring gaps in my literary consumption—everyone does; that is, after all, why “Humiliation” is such a successful joke in Lodge’s writing—but it would be nice to think that I’ll eventually catch up to the wide breadth of literature that my friends and family are able to reference.