Several of you were kind enough to share your own thwarted attempts to read authors you felt you "should" enjoy. From Henry James to Barbara Pym to Leo Tolstoy, reading of your literary nemeses made me feel a bit better about my own. One of you even confessed via email to disliking the much-touted D. E. Stevenson, and that confession helped me even more, since my own failures should—based on reviews of fellow bloggers and even based on their general sales histories—be almost as enjoyable to me as Stevenson.
But before I make my own confessions, I was planning to mention an article I saw a few years ago about the books that people feel they should read, but don't. When I tried to search for it, however, I found a whole variety of other articles on the same topic. For example, there's this one from last summer at Bookriot, which lists 20 titles, including some bestsellers that are (or were, a year ago, at least) de rigueur. I was rather pleased to note that I've read 14 of the 20, and that the remaining 6 don't cause me any guilt at all (well, okay, maybe a wee bit of guilt at not having read Great Expectations...)
Buzzfeed came up with 22 books and (apparently just to make me feel bad) ranked Great Expectations number 1, but I've read 17 of the others, so that should balance out my neglect of Dickens, right? I was going to say that Treasure Island seems like an odd choice, but then I remembered that I haven't read it either...
And The Guardian did a list of 10 last fall as well. My now-archnemesis is #3, but of the rest I've only missed one, The Lord of the Rings, which some will no doubt find a shocking oversight, but which I've never even so much as considered reading. I haven't seen the films either. [Pause for shocked gasps of dismay.]
Sadly, I never did find my original list, which as I recall focused particularly on highly-acclaimed but weighty tomes such as Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and George Eliot's Middlemarch. But I did learn that this readerly guilt is a more popular theme than I ever knew before.
One thing that all of these lists have in common is that general readers rarely feel guilty for neglecting women writers. The Brontës and Jane Austen seem to be about the extent of it. But of course my perspective is a bit different, and while I feel no guilt at all for giving Tolkien a miss, and little enough about Great Expectations, my middlebrow dislikes make me feel bad indeed.
I always feel that I must just be missing something, that the failure must be in me as a reader. So, any snarkiness in the following is perhaps a bit defensive on my part. How I do hate failing to appreciate works that other people love!
The first of my dislikes I practically handed to you on a silver platter in my earlier post: "a perennial bestseller, and the source of an equally classic and popular film adaptation." I mean, really. Apart from Gone with the Wind, perhaps (which, it suddenly occurs to me, I have never read either...), what could I have been talking about but Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca? I wanted to love it, I really did, but it just felt overdone. Looming portentousness (one of my very favorite expressions, which I don't think I've had cause to use here before) in every single sentence. Perhaps part of the problem is that I saw Hitchcock's film first, but even that can't explain the problem fully, as, though I am a serious Hitchcock aficionado, Rebecca has never been one of my favorites of his films either. Looming portentousness again, for sure. Fortunately, neither du Maurier nor Virago, who have been keeping virtually all of her work in print, need any promotion from me!
In fact, as it happens, all three of the novels that defeated me are currently in print from Virago. The second is the one I'm perhaps most conflicted about, because other bloggers have written enthusiastically about it and Nicola Beauman has declared it one of the best novels of the postwar period, but yet...I have to say it...I absolutely loathed it. For me, Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare seemed (much like her earlier Harriet, now reprinted by Persephone, which I did at least manage to finish) surly and sadistic and thoroughly off-putting from page 1. I suspect that Jenkins was, in both novels, exploring the nature of victimhood and cruelty, and doing so in a very serious, uncompromising way, and I'm sure I'm missing out. But alas, I just couldn't find a way into it.
Jenkins' novel is my most conflicted dislike, in the sense that I felt I should like it but in fact disliked it so strongly. But the last of my three is the most bewildering and the one that causes me to toss and turn through sleepless nights (okay, not really, but I do feel bad about it). Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels, life in the immediate aftermath of World War II is one of my favorite themes, and the short stories and journalism of Mollie Panter-Downes are both among my favorite "home front" reading.
Why, why, why, why, WHY, then, have I failed on three separate occasions to finish Panter-Downes' final novel, One Fine Day, a kind of tribute to Woolf's novel, telling of one day in a woman's life in the days just after the end of the war and reflecting upon the psychological, economic, and physical damages of war and on the arrival of postwar austerity? It's untenable. Of the three novels I'm discussing here, One Fine Day is the only one I've made multiple attempts to read, but I can't help feeling that it must be a favorite just waiting to happen. It's also the only one I am likely to attempt yet again. Wish me better luck next time!
So there you have it. Those are my guilty displeasures. Oh, the tremendous weight that has lifted from my mind in getting them off my chest! (Slight exaggeration again, but I do feel better.)
I shall have to think of an appropriate penance. Perhaps reading Great Expectations?