I don’t know about you, but I believe in signs. In particular, I believe there must be some significance in the fact that over the past month, I have heard three separate people refer to a 1974 novel called Changing Places: a newspaper columnist, a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival, and a strange man who insisted on talking to me in a bar. A few days after the last incident, I was walking by my local second-hand book store where I saw the book prominently displayed in the window.
I’ll come right out and admit that I haven’t actually read the book. I do think it is odd, though, that given it was published over 30 years ago, I should suddenly keep encountering it in this way.
In the novel, the author, David Lodge, invents a game called ‘Humiliation’ where you earn points by naming books you haven’t read which you think the other players will have. The protagonist of the book, a young lecturer playing the game with his English Department colleagues, scoops the pool by announcing that he has never read Hamlet. A few weeks later he is fired.
This inevitably made me think about the various books I have read and haven’t read, and the type of responses I would get were I to make the latter public. And then my thoughts inevitably turned to R’s ex-girlfriend.
When you’re in a new relationship, it is customary to criticise your ex. In particular, you focus on the areas where your current partner shows a marked superiority to them: this is how you show that you have evolved as a person, having developed a more refined sense of what you truly want from a relationship, thus making your new partner feel secure (at least in theory.)
As far as R was concerned, I was much more intellectual and cultured than his ex: this manifested itself especially in our reading habits. In the early days of our relationship, he confided that she had been a few chapters into Anna Karenina when they met while holidaying in the Daintree.
They were together for three years and during that time, the book accompanied them on every holiday and weekend away they took. She never actually made any progress on it though.
‘Seriously?’ I scoffed in disbelief. ‘She never finished Anna Karenina?’ But a shameful secret lay behind my outward show of contempt: I had not read Anna Karenina either.
This then brought to mind a Facebook friend of mine who had recently changed her status to ‘Next book suggestion please.’ Now, when it comes to book recommendations, you don’t want to be suggesting the title that’s just won the Booker Prize or has been number one on the best seller list for the past six months. Instead, you want a book that the person has never even heard of and is unlikely to stumble across in the course of their daily life – the literary equivalent of the great little Italian restaurant down the hidden laneway or the impossibly trendy bar where you can still, unbelievably, get a seat because only a handful of locals know about it.
Several of her friends were particularly forthcoming with their book recommendations: ‘Try Anna Karenina by Tolstoy for a little light something’ was the first suggestion. (Oh, the one by Tolstoy, not the Judy Blume version.) Then, ‘Don Quixote is a masterpiece. ‘Shakespeare’s pretty good.’ ‘If you like warm places I suggest either Crime and Punishment or Dante – that gets really hot.’ (There had obviously been some type of former dialogue that I wasn’t privy to, but I still didn’t quite get this comment. I mean, the Dante bit was obviously what passed for humour in the circles she moved in, but what was the deal with Crime and Punishment? Wasn’t that set in Russia? Where, last time I checked, it was really cold? ) ‘If you’re still sane after Karenina, try Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Beautiful prose, great insight into human nature and early 20th Century France.’
These suggestions infuriated me. Why? Because these books are classics: they exist in the public domain where everyone knows about them already (everyone who reads, at least.) It’s on par with the time I went to the doctor because I was feeling faint and she told me to try breathing. Breathing? Gee thanks, I wanted to say. I’d been doing that since I was born.
The thing with classics is that people can either embrace or reject them – but if you think you’ve brought some hitherto-unknown work of literature to their attention, you’re kidding yourself. ‘Oh – this so-called War and Peace is good, you say? I must try and track down a copy. Who wrote it again?’ If book recommendations were scrabble tiles, a recommendation of War and Peace would be equivalent to an ‘E’ (ie. one point. A trifling sum. Barely worth writing on the score card.)
My friend M once recommended a bar in the backstreets of Surry Hills he thought I’d like. I was dubious at first: he had told me the block it was on, and though I walked that block nearly every day, I had never before noticed a bar. It was a secret bar, he explained: there was no street entrance and to get in, you had to know a special password which changed nightly. He offered to take me there.
To enter, we walked down a dingy laneway lined with broken bottles where homeless people slept. A tough looking man in a leather jacket lounged against a wall smoking a cigarette. ‘Giraffe,’ M enunciated confidently. I expected the man to hit him. Or perhaps institutionalise him. Instead he motioned us through a door, hitherto invisible under the dim streetlights. We went through and found ourselves in what seemed to be a restaurant kitchen. Oil spattered noisily on stovetops and aproned cooks yelled at each other in Hindi. No-one seemed to notice us.
‘Err, should we be in here?’ I asked dubiously.
‘Of course, it’s this way,’ M said, leading me into a garishly-lit concrete passageway lined with bags of rice. For the next ten minutes, we wended our way through a maze-like series of stairs, corridors, fire escapes and storage rooms filled with vats of olive oil. I was just starting to suspect my friend of a nefarious plot to lure me out of human earshot so that he could kill and dismember me when we rounded a corner to meet the sound of laughter and tinkling wine glasses. We emerged into a large, candle-lit bar decorated with velvet draperies and models in fashionably dowdy attire. A chalkboard menu advertised a slew of cocktails with impossibly exotic names. I felt like Columbus discovering the New World.
Now, that was a recommendation worth having.
To return to my friend on Facebook, what annoyed me most about the book recommendations she received, even more then their being entirely redundant, was that they struck me as being merely an excuse for the authors to advertise how erudite and well-read they themselves were. I hate this kind of intellectual posturing – it really galls me – but I’m conscious that it’s something that we’re all in danger of slipping into, particularly those of us who value books for reasons other than a compelling need to discover whether Bella finally ends up with Edward or Jacob (See? Slipping already…)
So, in the age-old spirit of self-mortification, I thought I’d play my own version of ‘Humiliation’. Here it is; my public confession – the 12 most shameful books I haven’t read, in no particular order. Feel free to gloat or feel superior if you’ve read any of them: it’ll be good for me, honestly. And if I’ve disappointed you too much and you just have to defriend me, you know how to do it.
THE MOST SHAMEFUL BOOKS I HAVE NOT READ
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. A no-brainer – I’ve admitted it already.
- Catch 22, Joseph Heller.
- Kafka. I don’t think I’ve read a thing by him. Not even Metamorphosis.
- Cloud Street, Tim Winston. This is doubly shameful because I majored in Australian Literature at university. I know, it’s un-Australian of me – I’ll probably be lynched by a posse headed by Dick Smith.
- Everything is Illuminated, Jonathon Safran Foer. This is a beautiful phrase and I use it frequently because I just love it. I even made it my Facebook status when the three dead lightbulbs in my apartment were finally changed after I’d petitioned the landlord about it for over a month. But I haven’t read the book.
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini.
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. (Yes, I’m carrying around a lot of shame thanks to this guy.)
- The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A kids classic – and I was a children’s bookseller for three years. Shameful.
- Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larrsen. This is shocking. I must be the last person in Australia not to have read this. If I still worked in a bookstore, I’d be fired on the spot.
- Ulysses, James Joyce.
- The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway. I make no apologies for this. I don’t like Hemingway: too many verbs and dead lions. Adjectives are not a sin.