The best books I never read

“… strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalized the rest.”

— Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words” in Art Objects

On Saturday night, my friend Lorena and I started discussing books we haven’t read, and I was reminded of this quote (which I had recently rediscovered while flipping through old journals — I copied the entire passage I linked to above by hand). Specifically, Lorena was worried about reading Brave New World, because she was worried it wouldn’t live up to her expectations. Still, she had a sense of what the book was about, which was what reminded me of Winterson’s argument that familiar books become part of what exists — and as I was describing it, I mentioned the idea of works seeming less edgy once they become part of societal context instead of challenging or upending it, which, actually, is not what Winterson said, so when I reread the quote while typing, it was all meta and performative and mind-blowing.

As I mentioned before, and will blog about more in-depth … sometime, I just finished reading “The Most Human Human,” which I’d been meaning to check out since Brian Christian did an interview about it on “The Daily Show,” which aired on March 8. Before I read the book, the idea of the Turing test was rolling around in my brain for months, especially in relation to research/philosophizing I was doing about social media in relation to job applications.

I think the concept of not being able to unknow things is incredibly fascinating (in the same way that I think the concept of wanting to go back and change the past is bizarre, since every random moment in the past influences the present moment, and it’s impossible to know what else would be different).** Think about all of the books you haven’t read that you still consider familiar,*** or the pleasant shock of discovering that a text you thought was familiar was unsettling. As I was applying for master’s programs in comparative literature about two years ago, I had a long conversation with an assistant vice provost from UCLA about my romanticization of literate culture in England; I love the idea of culture being steeped in texts (and served with crumpets), as when I went to breakfast at my mom’s cousins place in Felixtowe, and a first edition of Great Expectations was just chilling next to the toast rack and very cheddary scrambled eggs.

That may also be why I love books about books and writers who write for readers, like Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series, which I think are enjoyable whether or not the reader is extremely well-read, but truly understanding and catching all the references requires a fairly deep knowledge of literature.****

I think another way to interpret my headline, “The best books I never read,” though, is to think about some of the classics I read in elementary and middle school when I was largely reading for plot. I think if I went back and reread them, I would experience that same unsettling feeling to find that old-school writers really just were that edgy with their quill pen and inkwell badassery.

* Coincidentally, I was disappointed by the second half of that book, because I’d read the beginning when my older cousin brought it with her on vacation, but I didn’t finish it before she left. I never got around to checking it out of a library, so I didn’t read the second half of the book until my sophomore year of high school. During the intervening three years, the ideas of human engineering to maintain societal castes rolled around in my mind (and “The Matrix” came out, etc.), and I was really excited to finish the book, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to.^

^ I now have no way of knowing whether I would have enjoyed the ending more had I not had such high expectations, or whether I would still have been disappointed and that would have tinged my view of the opening.

** Tangential thought: I love re-reading books, and am firmly in the “you can’t reread a book” camp, since you bring your context and environment and mood with you with each “re-reading.” I read Maniac Magee about once a year after first reading it in elementary school, and at some point in late high school or college, I teared up at Grayson’s death, the first time I cried while reading that book.

*** For example, earlier in the evening during which I had that conversation with Lorena, someone asked us to name the book and author from whence the quote “The only people for me are the mad ones.” I guessed “a beat poet,” then Kerouac, then On the Road. (I’ll get around to reading it soon, I’m sure.)

**** Incidentally, I love that Lemony Snicket makes similar references in A Series of Unfortunate Events (cf. Sunny Baudelaire’s “gibberish,” e.g. throwing around Latin roots or calling Count Olaf’s ambiguously gendered henchperson “Orlando”).

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: The best books I never read, cont.* | open-source mind

  2. i had this exact experience (that you mention in the last segment) with having to teach catcher in the rye…i hated it when i read it as a freshman in high school, well, because i went to school with about 75 holden caufields, but as i read it with a teaching lens (and layering all of the additional knowledge about the time and author i’d acquired over time) it became so fiercely alive and intense and i felt like i read an entirely different book. so good!

    on a separate note, i am known to have the world’s worst memory about how books, movies and really anything ENDS. so as a side note, what you are writing about in this post happens to me regularly–this experiencing things either differently or again, for the first time. where do we sort THAT experience?? 😀

    • I had to respond to discussion questions about different books as part of the freelance writing I was doing, and one person asked whether Holden is a likable character and just needs to stop whining, and I realized as I was composing my response that I appreciate The Catcher in the Rye because people can reread it at different points in their lives and feel vastly different about him. The fact that people debate whether he’s likable and that others find him so obnoxious represents how well Salinger is portraying adolescence — and I think the ending kind of reads as Holden feeling almost sheepish about his attitude. That said, I much prefer Nine Stories.

      As to book memory, I’m the opposite. I remember plot details really well, but am always pleasantly surprised by details or well-written passages — although I also tend to memorize where passages I like are going to pop up, and then I start anticipating them. Our brains are just wired to be giant feedback loops!

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