Books you haven't read but feel you should

Inspired by this post, in which I lament how Dan Simmons has informed me (not personally, I should add) that I “have not read widely enough or well enough to consider becoming a writer” simply because I haven’t read A Fairwell To Arms (no matter how many other works of great or classic literature I may have read in my lifetime), and also inspired by the “what do you claim to have read” thread, I hereby ask:

What books haven’t you read that you feel you really ought to have read?

There was a great article about this in a newspaper a couple of years ago in which authors and literary critics such as David Lodge listed books they were ashamed to say that they had not read. In fact, David Lodge seems to have made a game of it, called “Humiliations”, in one of his novels.

So, I shall begin:

No Hemingway novels (I’ve read many of his short stories, just none of his longer works - tried The Sun Also Rises and it was just too robust and macho for my taste, sorry!)
War and Peace (even though I love Anna Karenina…)
Very little Dickens
No George Eliot
Don Quixote (read about a quarter of it years ago)
No Proust
Moby Dick
No Virginia Woolf

Hmm, I think they’re the main ones I feel I really should have read, though I’m probably missing a few.

Share your shame!

All the best,

P.S. There are some online articles along these lines, such as this one (much of which seems to be disguised showing off, sadly, with the several authors naming works that most readers won’t have heard of in the first place, thus actually showing off their knowledge of rare works rather than lack of intimacy with well-known works)

Well, I have you trumped. I am so shameful, that I don’t even know the names of the books I should feel ashamed not to have read.

Although I haven’t touched any on your list, except Ulysses, which is sitting on my bookshelf with a bookmark on the third page.

I have to say, I found the Dan Simmons remark you refer to pretty offensive, and somewhat surprising, coming from a Sci Fi writer. Normally you would expect that kind of snarkiness from a member of the ‘literary’ class, not a mere genre-ist. Pretentious, or an inferiority complex? Or does he actually have a point, and must everyone have written and instantly recognise passages from a century-old American writer?


PS - I do try to read widely, and read well. I just haven’t read many classics, beyond what was forced on me in school. Even then, Wuthering Heights is the only one that sticks in my mind as one that I liked.

I have the opposite problem in this conversation, because I’m steeped in the classics. Moby-Dick? read and taught it over 50 times. Same with Dickens, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. But whenever you all go on about science fiction, or graphic novels, or Watchmen, etc. I feel positively stoopid. I never paid much attention to pop culture, especially after 1980; instead I was living, imaginatively, in earlier centuries.

So, we all have our areas of knowledge and of vacuity. It would be good to share that stuff, rather than dismiss what we don’t know. Or feel shame about avoiding it. I found that the best way to teach a long, dense classic is to take readers through it, very slowly, a few chapters a week, and just get them to look at the words and think.

I’ve never read any George Eliot, either, although people keep telling me I ought to read Middlemarch and I do hope to get round to it someday. Nor have I read any William Makepeace Thackeray, although one day I will read Vanity Fair. And I also plan to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South eventually. So many books, so little time! :slight_smile:

I tried Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers once, and didn’t like it, although maybe he deserves a second chance. I hate Virginia Woolf and refuse point blank to give her another chance, no matter how much you pay me.

I once read Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir but I can’t remember a thing about it (which is a worse admission than never having read it), so I want to read it again. A couple of years ago, I read his biography of Napoleon (the only such biography dating from Napoleon’s lifetime, if I remember correctly), and it made me feel bad about forgetting the fiction for which he was famous.

That I have read no George Eliot is especially shameful, as I was born in the hospital named after her in Nuneaton, her locality.

Is it fair to include books-you-started-because-you-had-to-but-never-finished-and-somehow-got-credit-for-and-even-wound-up-teaching? Then top of the list for me is Clarissa.

As for totally unread (with guilt slightly intensified by realization that I probably never will):

Like KB, I loved Anna K but never had the stamina to tackle War and Peace.

I don’t remember to have read anything by Henry James, but surely should have. I suppose.

I read Le Rouge et le Noir, but never tried La Chartreuse de Parme.

Read only one of Hemingway’s novels, and don’t even remember which one.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: big name on the West Bank, but… well, early in my college career I was assigned “Young Goodman Brown,” a major NT short. In class discussion, the professor said it was “a perfect metaphor.” I objected that “a perfect metaphor” was not only improbable and counter-intuitive, it was also a goddam oxymoron. The argument did much to delay my scholarly advancement, and I came away from it with a distaste for Hawthorne which I will admit, some fifty years later, is unfair. But there it is.

This list, I realize as the items for it come tumbling out, could go on for pages. I’ll spare myself the effort and you the tedium.


Koran. Not calling it fiction, but since other mentioned the Bible I think it counts.

Something by Darwin other than Origin. That one I have read.

I read War and Peace (quite I nice read) so that you all for making me now feel I need to read Anna. Ignorance is bliss. You have left me blissless.

Twilight. Is that* a mistake?


*For the avoidance of doubt, I’m referring to my failure to read the book…

I would say a definite ‘No’. Unless you are 12 years old, and female. You never know with names these days!

I thought it was boring, cliched, and poorly written. But I am clearly not the target market.


Thanks Matt.

So that’s OK then. I thought I might have missed a Harry Potter Moment…


No shame, but there are some big gaps in my reading that I should get to, one of these days.

-Recent lit-fic. I tend to read dead people when it comes to lit-fic.
-War & Peace. Just never have.
-More Dickens. Read some, enjoyed some, frustrated by some. Should read him again.
-Harry Potter. Never read. Never saw the movies. Figure I’ll experience them along with my son, when he’s old enough.

Well, I’ve recently set a goal for myself to read the following books:

The Great Gatsby (Yes, I know. I know.)
How Fiction Works by James Wood
How To Read And Why by Harold Bloom
Drood by Dan Simmons
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In Sarah’s House by Polish writer Stefan Grabinski (This one’s very obscure)

I’d also dearly love to read some more Updike. I’ve only read The Terrorist and a few of his short stories.

Also on the short list are Anna Karenina and Heart of Darkness.

I’d better get to it.

Edit note: Adding Country of the Pointed Firs based on Ahab’s recommendation in another thread.


I almost said “no”, because I’ve read enough classic authors in my various classes to know that I usually hate them. I didn’t like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Heart of Darkness (though I’m remarkably fond of the Star Wars novel based on that last one).

Then I remembered that 1984 still sits on my shelf, unread. And Dracula. (Yes, I do write dystopian-esque vampire stuff.) I also lament that I can’t stand the style of C.S. Lewis’s science fiction to be able to read his space trilogy and that I hate Armand so much that I can’t finish The Vampire Lestat.

I’m not the most widely read in “classic” fantasy and science fiction. I dabble in it, usually long enough to notice that I prefer more modern stuff. (I’m more of a fan of soft sci-fi than hard.) I do sometimes attempt to rectify that, but… Blegh. When I as a teenager predicted all but one plot element of a Terry Brooks book, it kinda killed my interest in reading more of it.

There was something else that I was thinking that I should read… Can’t remember what atm.

EDIT: Lolita! It seems like it would be pertinent to my current WiP. Pinocchio would also be smart, since I have a slaughtering/retelling of the story in the works–although I’ve never actually read the original. Need to rectify that.

I write mostly in the fantasy genre. Dragons, fey, elves, and stuff like that, yet I have never read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. The way that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, and worded those books, always left me with a headache after a few pages. I always felt like I need to go back and try reading them again.

It is such a relief to hear someone say that who is actually a fan of the genre.

I thought I was alone in thinking that good fantasy is possible, but LOTR is not an example!

You’re not alone. Around 10 years ago I finally decided to read LotR. What can I say … I kept mixing up “Sauron” and “Saruman” all the time, and in the end, well, wasn’t that thrilled. I could clearly see the care that went into the book, I was aware of Tolkien’s groundbreaking approach and I knew that many followed exactly in his footsteps*, but I didn’t really see why some people I knew read it over and over. I had already read other fantasy novels that had thrilled me more - Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” novels, for instance.

Feel free to curse me, but in this very case the movie is better!

But I’m a HUGE fan of Simmons. I’ve heard/read on different occassions that he’s not easy to handle as a person, but I don’t give a damn about that. After all, he’s not my neighbour.

*[size=50]I’ve published 3 fantasy novels myself now.[/size]

I, on the other hand…

… first read LOTR in 1969 at the age of 11 and have read it several times since. I have read a fair amount of other fantasy and enjoyed it, but nothing has ever come close to the shock of that first introduction to new worlds, to the combination expanded imagination, love of learning and concepts of duty that Tolkein gave. I took as much pleasure from the appendices as the story itself.

I wouldn’t pretend to know all the fantasy that is out there now, but with most of the ones I have read, the borrowings from the basic Tolkein ideas are so glaring that they seem clunky in comparison. I can enjoy them, of course, but they feel lightweight and pale in comparison - they are just stories, whilst for me, as a young person, LOTR was far more than that.

Now, this could be a function of the fact I came to Tolkein first, and I recognise that JRR himself built on a vast seam of earlier epic myth. But, to my mind, if LOTR is not good fantasy, then perhaps fantasy is not for me.

Please note, I am not at all denigrating other people’s taste, simply trying briefly and probably rather badly to explain why I think Tolkein towers above his imitators[1]. What’s more, I’m an awful lot older now, and it hasn’t been my favourite book for many years, but I still retain an immense affection for it.

There’s a good article I found on Tolkein’s influence at,M1 that some may find interesting.

Anyway, as in so much else, YLMV[2]



[1] I suppose I’m really talking here about the sort of the fantasy that has dungeons and dragons and elves and dwarrows (obscure Tolkein joke there, sorry…) and treats them seriously, rather than the ineffably brilliant Pratchett, who has them but doesn’t.

[2] Your Leaguage May Vary.

I wonder how much of your current enjoyment is tied to your liking it as a kid. I know with things I liked as a kid, my subsequent reaction goes one of two ways when I return to it later. Either:
a) Every time I read/watch it, I get a sense of nostalgia, and enjoy it as much for the memory of enjoying it the first time… as if I am experiencing it as a child again; or
b) I hate hate HATE it, and wish I never watched/read it again, because it has completely ruined my memory of it.

Usually, television and movies tend to go to the second reaction.

Obviously, a lot of adults love LOTR, but most of the people I know who re-read it every few years first read it in their teens.

As for Terry Pratchett… I am right with you there. He keeps me entertained driving to work each morning via audiobooks.

But then you also need to take into consideration that as far as Tolkien was concerned, he was not writing fantasy fiction, he was writing a mythology. And he loathed the fantasy fiction genre that sprang up as a result of the publication of LotR.

With LotR, bear in mind that there’s a large STYLE element, there. I like his style, which I suspect has much to do with why I also enjoyed Hart’s Hope by Orson Scott Card. An epic writing style can be difficult to get into, if you’re more used to the quick modern stuff.

So before calling LotR a bad example of fantasy, bear in mind all the writers it has influenced and please consider if it’s just a style you dislike. When I don’t like the style of a book, I withhold all judgement of its quality, because I’m not a just judge.

Take CS Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I couldn’t bear to read Out of the Silent Planet, but that was because I disliked the style. Me trying to pass judgement on the style being good or bad would be like me judging if a stuffed mushroom recipe is good or bad when I can’t stand mushrooms.