Nearly everyone who considers themselves well-read, or just desires to be, has a book, or several, that haunts them—the classic they haven’t read.
Some take that one book on vacation, a seemingly surefire way of plowing through, and never crack the cover. Others keep an ever-lengthening list of books they feel they must read, or never forget the one they lied about completing in high school, or lied about at a cocktail party last week.
Is book guilt effective inspiration, or should it be left on the shelf with that lonely copy of “Ulysses”?
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of “Eligible,” the 2016 best-selling retelling of “Pride and Prejudice,” says readers disclose to her at nearly every book signing that they haven’t read the Jane Austenclassic. Her reaction depends on the reader’s level of guilt. Sometimes the readers are sheepish, she says, essentially “asking me if it’s legal to read ‘Eligible’ without reading ‘Pride and Prejudice.” She gently encourages them to give it a shot. But “Eligible” readers who exhibit no remorse for bypassing “Pride”?
“It makes me a schoolmarm,” Ms. Sittenfeld says. “Well, you should!”
She handles her own book guilt with a similar mix of forgiveness and tough love. “This is shocking and appalling, but I have not read ‘Beloved,’ ” Ms. Sittenfeld says of Toni Morrison’s prizewinning novel. She hasn’t read “Moby-Dick,” either. But unless someone she considers brilliant invites her to read it together, she has no plans to.
“Moby-Dick” is one Maria Stasavage, a high school English teacher in New York City, has read twice. She hated it during her own high school years, then enjoyed it more as an adult. Sitting unread on her bookshelf, however, is Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with a cloth-wrapped cover.
“Because I bought this beautiful copy,” she told herself, “I’ll enjoy it that much more.” But while Ms. Stasavage loves Wilde’s witty shorter pieces, something keeps stopping her when she tries to sit down with “Gray.”
“Probably the internet,” she says.
She understands how similar distractions might keep her students from making it to the last action-packed scenes of “The Odyssey.” While it’s required reading for her freshmen, she knows it has a good chance of ending up as a source of future book guilt, no matter how hard she tries to break down Homer into understandable bites.
Penguin Classics vice president and publisher Elda Rotor believes small bites—reading a chapter at a time and not being obsessed with finishing—can be a satisfying way to approach the classics. Her imprint, celebrating its 70th birthday this year, also tries to attract new readers by tapping artists and graphic designers to reinterpret covers that may feel too stuffy for the modern reader.
One of her favorite reinterpretations was last November’s redo of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” for which she wanted “a cover with no bonnets,” Ms. Rotor says. The new version is based on a real woman’s glove with a map of attractions from the Great Exhibition of London.
Which book is on the top of Ms. Rotor’s list to finish? The 800-page “Middlemarch,” she confesses, before adding, “I love the bites I’ve had.”
Solace Southwick’s daughter brought home an English class syllabus in August that triggered her own book guilt. Upon seeing “A Tale of Two Cities” on the assignment list, the Houston attorney announced she would read it along with her daughter, Virginia, a high school freshman. Ms. Southwick has read Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House,” but not many others, she says.
“Dickens is certainly part of the canon, beloved by many, and kind of up my alley,” Ms. Southwick says. She jokes that she may have insinuated to her daughter that “Cities” would be a reread for her.
Nigel Cameron says the classic books many come to believe they must read—“the canonical expectations of an educated community,” he calls it—are so many in number that no one can ever feel fully secure in his own reading accomplishments. Mr. Cameron, the president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, D.C., laughed as he recalled his pride in making it halfway through a Marcel Proust novel only to learn a friend had just finished it in the original French.
Though Mr. Cameron plowed through many classics early—“War and Peace” at 13, he says—one that stands out on his list of not-read regrets is E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” And because it is one whose magic is most felt by younger readers, his guilt is even more acute. “It isn’t just that I haven’t read ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ it’s that I can never read ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ These are awful things!” Mr. Cameron says.
Shawn Donley oversees new book purchasing at Portland, Ore.’s famed Powell’s Books, and his email signoff includes what he’s currently reading and what he’s just finished. He can speak eloquently on the countless classics he’s read and authoritatively suggest numerous novels that haven’t even come out yet. But don’t ask him about “Infinite Jest.”
“When it first came out, I wanted to be seen reading it…and then I abandoned it, and abandoned it again,” Mr. Donley says of the notoriously tough David Foster Wallace read. Now, “I don’t even want to be seen with the book because it’s a sense of failure,” he says.
Powell’s has for the past three summers created lists such as 25 Books to Read Before You Die.25 Books to Read Before You Die. That list includes Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and, yes, “Infinite Jest.”
“We’re very prolific readers. We’ve spent our lives being readers,” Mr. Donley says of the list’s creators. It makes the compiling process especially guilt-inducing, he says, because while someone on the team has of course read each one, no one person has read more than about 10.
Amazon senior books editor Chris Schluep, previously a longtime editor at Random House, suggests people dealing with book guilt stop beating themselves up. If not having read a particular author is causing you stress, he says, choose the author’s shortest book.
Mr. Schluep also often reads works by Herman Melville and Daniel Defoe when waiting in line—a few pages at a time over however long it takes counts as reading. And before you dive in, Mr. Schluep suggests, get a second opinion from someone whose taste you trust. It may just be that the book isn't for you.
Mostly, he thinks readers should just let the book guilt go. “People are way too judgmental about books,” especially the classics, Mr. Schluep says.
And if there is one particular book you just can’t struggle through, there is a way to get the gist of a classic work without doing the work.
“Watch the movie,” he says.