Turn of the Bookworm

12 Apr

Rebellion is a poor excuse to deny oneself pleasure but that’s the only thing I can come up with when I look at the list of books I ought to have read but haven’t.

I should explain that my mother is a lady with definite literary tastes that she has sought to pass on to me for as long as I can remember. Part of her determination, I suspect, stems from the fact that it has been years since my brother so much as looked at a book and, even if he did, he’d read something she’d automatically classify as degenerate. I, on the other hand, read pretty much everything that comes my way, including flyers and restaurant menus. It’s a disease.

Ma got her first good shot at me when I was eight and bedridden – I couldn’t so much as make it to the bathroom without help so visits to the bookstore were out of the question. I still scribbled the names of the books I wanted to read (I was then in my Nancy Drew phase) which my mother took without comment and then completely ignored. Instead, she bought me what she thought I should be reading – The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Count of Monte Cristo (both unabridged), six of Shakespeare’s major plays (abridged) and, by way of light relief, The School at the Chalet.

I was furious. I was in a mood to begin the Supermysteries starring Nancy and the Hardy Boys. Thanks to the power of the blurb, I was convinced these were going to be the best adventure mysteries ever known to mankind, and here was my mother forcing fuddy-duddy literature down my throat in direct opposition to my stated wishes. I threw a tantrum – and Ma coolly closed the door behind her.

After I’d cheered up by imagining the shock and everlasting grief she would suffer when she came back and found me dead of whatever life-threatening disease that stalks ignored children, I defiantly picked up a Nancy Drew I’d read a dozen times already. This was India before the advent of cable television and in any case, my parents to this date don’t believe in spoiling their children with TVs in their bedrooms, so it was read or be bored. I was bored. Giving in to the inevitable, I chose The Count of Monte Cristo (it was lying closest to hand) to prove to myself that my mother knew nothing whatsoever about books. And I fell in love.

But ever since then, somewhere in my head I’ve automatically separated all books into Mom-approved vs. Me-approved. It doesn’t matter that they’re mostly the same, some books just scream “Mom-approved”. These, I will read eventually, but only when I have nothing left to read and will usually be borrowed from a library; to be bought only when I end up loving them, which happens about 80 percent of the time.

Here’re five awaiting their turn:

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
How can I resist a book in which the main characters are named Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene? Yet somehow I’ve managed this astonishing feat.

Not only does its plot sound right up my alley (although to be honest, there is precious little that isn’t) but it is part of a literary period that I generally like. Not adore, like say, the early 19th century, but certainly like a great deal. In addition, the odd bits and pieces of Hardy that I’ve read over the years seem pretty good to me. Once, I even took it out of the library – and neglected it in favor of a Bronte re-reading orgy. Put Jane Eyre in front of me and I become a zombie that must feed on all things Bronte. Note to self: next time, borrow it along with some Anne Rice, I’d read anything to avoid reading Rice.

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
Welsh misery. No, no, that’s not my opinion of it, that’s the plot. I’ll freely admit that the sad stories aren’t my favorite. Not that I live to only read about cute li’l bunnies on uppers but as I’ve said before, I suspend my disbelief very easily. And the Welsh have a justly deserved reputation for beauty mixed with sadness.

You give me beauty mixed with sadness and by the end of the day all you’ll find a huddled husk of a human being under a sodden handkerchief. I mean, I saw the movie and Maureen O’Hara had me in tears. Last week, I read a Cold War thriller and bawled my head off reading about a fictional orphaned little boy who got exactly one paragraph in a novel full of violence and torture. Someday I’m going to give in, read this book and die of dehydration. I just know it.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I tried. I really did. Ma has been after me to read this book for years. She even bought it and put it on my table. This is the woman who regularly tries to make me stop reading and be, as she calls it, “sociable”. That’s how much she loves this book. So I did what every good child does – I cheated.

I rented the movie made by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy (an actor I adore). End result? I fidgeted my way through the first five minutes and then switched it off so I could go solve some Math equations. I tried three separate times but never made it past the first 10 minutes. I figure it must have gotten better as the movie progressed considering the Oscars it won/was nominated for, but I haven’t seen it.

Of the book itself, I’ve never gotten past page one. The little I know, I read in critical papers that I scoured for tips with which I could throw my mother off the scent. So I know it’s about some dude named Santiago who ends up with a giant marlin’s skeleton. Oops, did I spoil it for you? Never mind, you’ll survive.

The most I can say about this book is that it has generated some of the craziest meta theories I ever read in which that dumb fish is everything from Christianity to God Himself. And the funniest fact I found out was that all the critics who loved it as a shining example of realism when it first came out, changed their minds once Hemingway began to pontificate about its layers of meaning. Ha ha, Hemingway. Couldn’t keep your mouth shut, could you? But thanks for proving once and for all that critical opinion is still just one person’s fallible opinion whether your find it in the pages of The New York Times or your neighborhood newsletter.

The Tropic of Cancer (and Capricorn) by Henry Miller
Okay, I can’t blame this one on my mother. She’d probably rather I never read this one. But it weighs heavily on my mind that I haven’t read a book that George Orwell thought was one of the most significant books to be written in the 20th century.

I mean, Henry Miller has always seemed a part of that intensely self-conscious, envelope-pushing crowd that inhabited the middle part of the last century (necessary evil, I guess) but I do know that these two books are ones that I should read. Actually, I think I should read at least one book by all the writers Anais Nin took as lovers but Henry Miller will do for now. Lawrence Durrell, your time will come.

Problem is, I get the blahs just thinking about it. This is mainly a reflection of my own prejudice – I’m not a big fan of 20th century literature. I personally feel a significant portion of it is pretentious humbug, written with one eye firmly fixed on being “important”.

There! I said it and I mean it. It is entirely possible that Miller is not one of those writers but a little voice in the back of my head remains dubious. Whatever be the case, a mere glimpse of it is enough to give me an instant case of ennui.


So that’s my secret list. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t particularly feel guilty about them either. Not until my mother wants to know what I’m currently reading anyway.

[Originally published at and edited because John Ford is not the same as John Sturges.]


Posted by on April 12, 2007 in Books, Personal, Review


6 responses to “Turn of the Bookworm

  1. DG

    April 12, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Ohh, I’ve got mega lists like yours too. In my case though, it was my dad who was the bookoholic. But he took mercy on me and got me abridged versions and I later hunted down the unabridged to find out the story in their original form. Being a Lit student, I hate to admit this but I haven’t read a proper book (a classic) since I graduated in 1998!

  2. DesiGirl

    April 12, 2007 at 5:56 pm

    The Liz post is up – check it out and tweak it anyway you please. it is basically your post, with just some URLs added for relevancy. So you could just copy it and post it under your name.

  3. Gagan

    April 13, 2007 at 12:54 am

    Nice post….check out this article from the Globe and Mail last week….a little guide on how to fake it…reading important books that is..:)
    By Leah Mclaren:Globe and Mail 07/04/07

    When I was in university, I had a roommate who was a master in the art of talking about books he had not read. A gifted conversationalist, he would ask me to tell him all about whatever tedious assigned tome he saw me slogging through — which I would, as intelligently as I could in two minutes or less. A day or a week or a month later, we would be at some party or other and I would overhear him tossing off observations like, “Milton really only hits his stride in Book Two,” or “You’ve got to admire Thackery’s eye for social detail,” as wide-eyed undergrad girls nodded along, hypnotized by his wit.

    When I confronted him on this practice years later, he shrugged and laughed. “You gave me coverage,” he said, using the Hollywood term for the notes that industry underlings provide on scripts they’ve read for their superiors. But what he was really saying was that there is no shame in talking about books you haven’t read. “Life,” he explained, “is too brief not to be briefed.”

    It’s an opinion shared by Pierre Bayard, a University of Paris literature professor and author of the recently published book How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read. A surprise bestseller in France, Bayard’s book (which has yet to be published in English) instructs readers on how to speak eloquently and intelligently about books they’ve barely cracked.

    In this era of crib culture, in which reviews are more entertaining than most movies and news has been condensed into cellphone-friendly tidbits, it’s no surprise people are looking for intellectual shortcuts. Tabloids devoted to celebrity gossip are the ultimate example of triumph of bite-sized buzz over culture. Why bother spending two hours and $12 watching the latest Lindsay Lohan movie, when you can spend 60 seconds absorbing the details of her latest rehab stint?
    Print Edition – Section Front

    But Bayard goes beyond the shallow, insisting that it is possible “to have a passionate conversation about a book that one has not read, including, perhaps especially, with someone else who has not read it.” It’s a bold statement, but one that would sound controversial only to someone who has not been to university.

    As all students know, sometimes a little knowledge is all you need. Academics are paid to be experts in a certain subject, but anyone who has sat through a seminar led by a prof overfamiliar with the work at hand knows how boring an abundance of knowledge can become. Bayard, on the other hand, cockily admits to giving lectures on books he hasn’t bothered to open — and one can’t help but suspect his classes are all the more interesting for it.

    As he recently told The New York Times: “To be able to talk with finesse about something one does not know is worth more than the universe of books.”

    As a journalist, I’d always felt intensely guilty at the unavoidable necessity of occasionally having to interview someone whose book I’d only had time to skim. (Any journalist who tells you they’ve never done this, by the way, is a liar.)

    That feeling evaporated when I became an author myself. During the media tour for my novel, I was not surprised to find that most interviewers had only the vaguest notion of what my book was about. What did amaze me was that I had much more interesting exchanges with the people who had not read it than with people who had. The more research the interviewer had done, the more likely he or she was to parade the hard-won knowledge with excruciating questions about minor plot points on Page 231. This line of interrogation was not just uninteresting to me (having not looked at the book in six months, I could barely recall the character names, let alone what happened on Page 231) but boring for the intended audience.

    Bayard’s high-minded dismissal of heavy reading is hardly anything new. I was halfway through James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson last summer when I came across his subject’s famous quip that “a book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” That was enough for me. I folded down the page corner and moved on to more interesting fare.

    This revelation led me to wonder what makes literature important: the way we think and talk about books, or the actual books themselves? Northrop Frye argued that the way books connect to each other amounts to something much larger than the individual books themselves. Or as Bayard argues, context is more important than text.

    As a writer who knows what it’s like to labour over every word, I find this difficult to accept. Chatting recently with my old university roommate, I was surprised to find a sympathetic ear. “Lots of books published these days are little more than concept and theme,” he said. “But when you take a book that is strongly represented by the texture of its prose — say like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — a thorough reading is essential.”

    Impressed by his point, I admitted the truth: I hadn’t read Proust.

    “Don’t worry,” he said with a laugh. “Neither have I.”

  4. Amrita

    April 13, 2007 at 1:22 am

    DG – I have a 4-6 books a week habit to which I add my web surfing and my two magazines and 2-3 comics if i can find them. So its no trouble to put things off 😀 and yes, I’m half-blind by now and my dark circles have dark circles.

    Gagan – lol! I hung out with this crowd of visual artists (photographers to you and me) this one year and they were all like that guy! they had walls full of books they looked all knowledgeable about and never cracked one of them. Not one!

  5. M

    October 31, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Your MOM gave you School at the Chalet? What a super Mom! (You’ll notice, I carefully avoided all the other “good” books mentioned! 🙂

    Chalet school – woohoo!


  6. Amrita

    November 1, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    M – hee hee, yes.

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