Confession: My “Reading List of Shame”

341/365 Outdoor reading

I know every self-proclaimed literary person has The List. When you want to writhe in self-loathing, you pull this list out, read over it, and call yourself a hack. Then, you go to the fridge and grab a can of whipped cream. You eat it straight from the spray nozzle while watching The Notebook or something equally horrible. Why? Because the books on The List haven’t been read. And those books are, roughly:

The most influential books of all time, and every person on earth has read them, like with awards and everything.

I keep a running mental list of all the important books I’ve never read. You know, the books considered essential, classic, and important. I even have a degree in Book-Things, not just an undergraduate degree – no, no – I am a Book-Things Person, M.Ed, and there are piles of books deemed “important” that I have never read. Important-Book-Things People even took the time to make a separate list from the last hundred years or so to say which books are important. This does nothing but further build my sense of inadequacy as a Book-Things Person, M.Ed. (In reality, most people don’t care one bit. Even the Important-Book-Things People know you can’t read every book ever. It’s hard to convince my brain of this.)

For the record, my list includes: Moby Dick, Catch 22, Invisible Man, Lord of the FliesThe Catcher in the Rye, My Antonia, Brideshead Revisited, Lolita, The Old Man and the Sea, any novel by Henry James, and many more. 

So, why do I feel the need to obsess over unread books and measure my credibility based on my not reading these books just because other people think they are important? Well, the thing about the books on The List? You can’t get away from them. I see references to these books everywhere: blog posts, NPR segments, Final Jeopardy, movies, even old episodes of Dawson’s Creek. Seriously. It becomes embarrassing and annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, there are books I have never read, deemed “essential” by those cursed Important-Book-Things People, and yet I don’t really care that much to put them on The List. Like Ulysses by James Joyce. I respect this book and recognize it as an important work, and I know it’s huge in terms of the canon and all, but meh. I just don’t care. I’ve read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, and I loved them both. Anyway, I feel satisfied with my Joyce quota, enough to feel legit but not too much to seem pretentious.

Still, The List eats away at me and every so often, I get the urge to conquer it. I feel a call to action, and I decide to knock out some books on The List. So, this past week, I picked up On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

All I can tell you so far is that these books were on The List, and I’m checking them off very soon! Victory.

Also, I really miss girls. I took on too much maleness in one fell swoop. My book-reading week could only have been worse had I added the entire collection of Ernest Hemingway, along with attending a gun show or one of those war reenactment things or a spitting contest or something. So, after my list-tackling feelings wane, I need to hear a girl talking again – a girl who isn’t a prop. Don’t get me wrong, I like male writers. I can read war stuff and bomb stuff and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll stuff. I’m just saying I miss the girls. But I also have to conquer The List.

I might need some sort of book-related therapy.

OK. So I’m curious. What’s on The List for you? Come on. You can tell.

  1. #1 by Jessica Howard (@quirkybookworm) on October 12, 2012 - 12:47 am

    1. Don’t waste your time on The Old Man and the Sea. It was on my list – read it this spring – ugh.
    2. Catch-22?! My Antonia?! Those are two of my favorites.
    3. On my list: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, Macbeth, and The Catcher in the Rye. And any Steinbeck. *hiding my face in shame*

  2. #2 by kellywiggains on October 12, 2012 - 12:52 am

    Don’t hide in shame! You’re welcome here. It’s a safe place, really. OK. I’ll move Catch-22 and My Antonia up to the very top. I promise!

  3. #3 by Lauren@The Housework Can Wait on October 12, 2012 - 7:47 am

    Catcher in the Rye and Old Man and the Sea – BOTH overrated. Here, I’ll save you some trouble with Catcher in the Rye: You’re phony, he’s phony, your shirt is phony, that dog is phony, her job is phony, your kid is phony. The end.

    My list keeps morphing and changing, because I take some that I thought I “should” read off when I realized I don’t actually WANT to read them, and added others on. My List includes: Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, and I’m sure many others I can’t remember off the top of my head. Oh, and I’m definitely with you on the lack of Henry James.

  4. #4 by Stephanie on October 12, 2012 - 7:55 am

    I don’t really know what’s on my list, but I have read a few on your to read list. The Catcher and the Rye and Catch-22. Both pretty good if I remember correctly. It’s been a while since I read them. I read Jane Eyre after you did your book review on it. I even feel pretty good because I read some on Lauren’s list as well. I read Fahrenheit 451 for a book report, and we had to read 1984 and Animal Farm for English. So, I am not as behind as I thought on books that should be read. Happy Reading, Kelly!

  5. #5 by kellywiggains on October 12, 2012 - 9:12 am

    @Lauren: I’ve started Catcher in the Rye several times. I just get so bored with it and move on.

  6. #6 by Katie on October 12, 2012 - 9:27 am

    Mine is Les Mis. Mitch has read maybe 10 books (for fun) in his life and that is one of them. He was shocked when I told him I’ve never read it. Somehow I never had to read it in school. So I’m halfway through right now. I can’t let him beat me! 🙂 it might take me awhile though…

  7. #7 by J.B. Duncan on October 12, 2012 - 9:53 am

    I like to think that I’m well read until I realize that I’ve never read many of the “classics.” I think it’s a sign of rebellion against the self-appointed snooty wizards of smart who tell us what to read. My list? To Kill A Mockingbird, Moby Dick, War and Peace, anything by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Fahrenheit 451, Catcher in the Rye and a few others that I’m forgetting, mainly because I don’t care. The only thing more annoying than people telling me a book is a classic is somebody telling me my life is a waste if I don’t read it.

  8. #8 by kellywiggains on October 12, 2012 - 10:37 am

    @ J.B. – I think that’s the sentiment of most well-read people who have no big-time invested interest in literary fiction. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t think twice about these things if I didn’t have a degree in English. To me though, rather than seeing my list as something that snooty people are telling me to read, I equate it with claiming to be a country music fan yet not knowing a single song by Willie Nelson. Sure, I think you can like country music and not know about Willie Nelson, but no die hard country fan would then take you seriously. You know what I mean?

  9. #9 by Misty on October 12, 2012 - 12:37 pm

    Oh, good. I’m so glad someone actually admitted this. Having last worked full time at a school devoted to classics (and not just classics but the really old ones), I felt like a fraud. I don’t like old classics in general. I prefer the late 1800s to the 1950s and mostly American works. I do love several on your list (Catcher, The Old Man and Lord of the Flies), but I completely understand everyone’s list is different. I can’t get through the Brontes. EWWW! So stuffy. I keep thinking I should try again. I must admit I had to read Moby Dick (italics) several times to teach for school. YUCK! I still only like a few chapters. I just picked up The Red Badge of Courage last night. And, I know this will hurt you, so I say hesitantly, but I’ve been struggling through The Poisonwood Bible since last Christmas. I’m just having a hard time wanting to keep reading it every night, so most nights I read something else. Maybe it’s one of those books you like on the second time around. I also have some on my list by authors I adore but have only read one of their books, like Fitzgerald. I really need to read something other than The Great Gatsby. Oh, and the Screwtape Letters. I’ve tried a couple of times to make it through. 😦 I have read The Great Divorce, though. Of course, it’s because I had to teach it, but I did like it. Thanks for your confession and making me feel like not a complete literary failure!

  10. #10 by ggdecker on October 12, 2012 - 4:08 pm

    I have never read any of the books on your list. I have also never read Pride and Prejudice. I actually downloaded it onto my Kindle app, but got so frustrated with all the women obsessing about mud on skirts and other such horrors that I finally allowed myself to be okay with not having read it! Sweet freedom!

  11. #11 by ggdecker on October 12, 2012 - 4:14 pm

    I have read Fahrenheit 451 and loved it! I was shocked at how “today” it is! However, I had to read Great Expectations so I could tutor at the high school. I felt like I was wading through thick, mental mud. If people really talked that way, it’s a wonder anyone ever got anything said!

  12. #12 by Steph J. (@CheapskateCook) on October 12, 2012 - 8:42 pm

    I’ll join the inout about Old Man and the Sea. The only thing I liked about it is that it was short! I’ll admit it has some merit – in a “wow, this is a classic so it must be really deep and maybe if I think hard enough I’ll understand what it is” kind of way. But other than that, I’ll take Pride and Prejudice and horror over mud on skirts any day.

  13. #13 by Heidi on October 12, 2012 - 10:16 pm

    I love this post. And I know EXACTLY what you mean. On my list are War and Peace and Ulysses, but, really, I probably won’t ever read them. I started Ulysses a year ago and hated it, and War and Peace just seems so… tedious. Also, and this is important: GO READ LOLITA.

  14. #14 by coolhandandrew on October 13, 2012 - 12:15 am

    As you know, I’ve read Ulysses and even parts of Finnegans Wake, so I am SUPER pretentious. :). That being said, my guilt list would include Anna Karenina, On the Road, In Cold Blood, Wuthering Heights, pretty much any French novel (Count of Monte Cristo, Hunchback of Les Musketeers, etc.), and Fifty Shades of Gray (Grey? sp? LOL?) It would not WOULD NOT include anything by D.H. Lawrence because he is the worst ever throughout all generations forever and ever amen. Even worse than the Fifty Shades of Grey person. Ok, maybe not that the worst, but still pretty awful.

  15. #15 by kellywiggains on October 13, 2012 - 8:11 am

    @Heidi: I know!! I know!! Lolita, right. It’s on my list. Right after Catch 22 and My Antonia because Jessica screamed at me first.

    @Andy: See, you can pull off the reading all the Joyce’s thing without being pretentious. I think you would like On the Road – It’s all, “Hey we’re in the fifties, almost the sixties. We have about ten dollars, and we need to travel across the country. Dig it, man. Let’s buy some whiskey!! Also, jazz, man.” Dr. Organ forced me to read Sons and Lovers, and I almost died. In a funny twist, I just read an article where Salman Rushdie said that 50 Shades made Twilight seem like War and Peace. It made my week.

  16. #16 by Elizabeth on October 30, 2012 - 4:07 pm

    Ha ha ha!!! That Salman Rushdie quote is beautiful!!!

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