Last week or the week before (who can tell, in August?) I read Susan Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing, about her decision to spend a year reading only books she already has in the house. Her by-the-by spins-off into various other book-related discussions helped very pleasantly to pass my annual lie-in. The book’s not really about the year of reading, nor really about the list of forty desert island reads she starts compiling halfway through, but more a review of a life of reading, not to mention hobnobbing with (or touching the gown-hems of) greats like Ian Fleming, Bruce Chatwin, Edith Sitwell (yikes), and Charles Causley.
Hill takes for granted the centrality of reading to life, and the importance of the experience of reading, of being with the book, which is refreshing at a time when outside the books pages, books (which ones, how many, before or after they won prizes) are too often regarded as cultural checkboxes to be ticked rather than dwelt on. One of Hill’s diversions is to talk about why she never read certain books, and I started thinking about it myself, about books I’ve not read, and why (too often, I’m clueless on this).
I couldn’t be bothered dissembling, so here I’m fessing up to a random ten of my gaps. I’m interested to know whether others do feel embarrassed about having skipped Daniel Deronda or whatever, or a touch more juicily, if you’ve ever lied through your teeth about having read something.
1. My mother says you’re either an Alice fan or a Wind in the Willows type, and while she’s all for Ratty and Mole and heigh-ho for the open road, I prefer to drown in my own tears and eat magic mushrooms. All that Toad Hall, parp parp stuff just made me grind my molars to splitting point, and it’s a classic I’ve never finished.
2. The first time I was aware of not having read a book that everyone else had was at college when I discovered that every other Irish student I met had read the 1936 autobiography Peig, a prescribed Leaving Certificate text. One shortcut to a discovering a shared cultural heritage missing there, then.
3. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I expect to love. I just haven’t got round to it yet. I will, one day, soon, any day now. Not that I have a copy.
4. Unlike The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - I have two copies, and haven’t read either of them, can’t say why, sounds brilliant, no excuse.
5. The Bell Jar. Why have I never read this? I’ve read Plath’s journals, her poetry, even her Bed Book.
6. Gravity’s Rainbow or anything else by Thomas Pynchon. I can only shrug.
7. The Woman in White is a book I feel as if I have read, but I haven’t. Never even seen the film. An 1860s detective novel, multiple points of view, told through letters, everything about it recommends itself to me. It’s one I have to get off this list.
8. I may be the only person I know who hasn’t read On the Road. I’ve read Off the Road, a great memoir written by Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife and at some point Jack Kerouac’s lover, and maybe I should have saved it for later, because somehow it prevented me from reading Kerouac’s book, as if seeing behind the scenes had ruined the play to come.
9. Now of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a series, though it always appears on lists as one entry. Strictly speaking I think I have read one, but I didn’t get it and would just as soon eat a tablespoon of detergent as read the rest. I saw that Eoin Colfer had written a sixth in the series, but even that hasn’t tempted me.
10. On paper, as it were, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is perfect for me – long and complex, magicky, pastichey, historical – but I couldn’t make head or tail of it after fifty pages. Maybe my timing was wrong? I loved Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Makes no sense.
What essential works have you never read?
And if I were to revisit these ten, which do you recommend I pick up first?