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Unread Books; Changing Character Names

November 4, 2011 | by

I’ve never read Moby-Dick or War and Peace, but people think I have, because I told them so. What is the great book you have never—but should have—read?

Just this morning—at five o’clock, to be exact—I was staring at the ceiling, thinking about Krapp’s Last Tape and how shocked my favorite college professor would be if he knew I still haven’t seen or read it. At least I hope he’d be shocked. I have never got through any of Beckett’s novels (and have seen almost none of his plays, or anybody else’s). I have never got through Henry Green’s Living or Concluding, though neither one is a long book, and I have sometimes heard myself call Green my “favorite” postwar English novelist, as if I had read enough to have one. I have never got through Jane Eyre or Giovannis Room or Journey to the End of the Night or Zenos Conscience or Pierre—I have never got through chapter one of Pierre. I have never read The Life of Henry Brulard and am not sure its even a novel. I have never read Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (but have said I have). I will never reread Dostoevsky as an adult, which in my case is more or less the same as not having read him. I couldn’t finish The Recognitions: I stopped 150 pages from the end, when the words just stopped tracking, and have never managed five pages of JR. I can’t remember which Barbara Pym novels I read, it was so long ago, and there are so many I haven’t. I have never made it to the cash register with a novel by Ronald Firbank. Thomas Hardy defeats me. So does D. H. Lawrence: you can love a writer and never actually feel like reading any more of his novels. I have never read Lady Chatterleys Lover. I never got to the end of Invisible Man. I have never read Stoner or Gormenghast or Blood Meridian or Wide Sargasso Sea (see Jane Eyre, above). Or any Faulkner novel all the way through besides The Sound and the Fury. I have never enjoyed a novel by Eudora Welty enough to keep going. I think I got to the end of V., which may be even worse than having put it down, and know for a certainty I never got far in Gravitys Rainbow. I have never read U.S.A. or Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy or Pamela or any novels by Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Mavis Gallant, or Dashiell Hammet. Or Raymond Chandler. I have never read Tender Is the Night, but just the other night someone used it as an example of something, and I nodded.

I was recently talking with someone about the book All the King’s Men when I said something about the novels central character, Willie Stark. The person looked at me with confusion and asked if I meant some other name. Apparently we were talking about the same charismatic demagogue, but he is called different things in different editions. Do you know the story?

In early drafts, Robert Penn Warren called his hero Willie Talos. His editors at Harcourt, Brace thought this sounded too German, or said they did. (Sometimes it’s easier to make up a reason when the truth is you just don’t like a name.) Willie Talos became Willie Stark in the galleys of the first edition (1946), and he was still Willie Stark when Warren wrote a new introduction to the novel in 1963. Ten years ago, Houghton Mifflin brought out a “restored” edition, with the name Willie Talos reinstated, along with a bunch of small cuts made by Warren’s editors, all of which Warren approved at the time.

All of my friends are trying to get me to participate in NaNoWriMo. Have you heard of it? Apparently November is National Novel Writing Month, and theres a service that allows you to publicly pledge a high page number, logs your word count every day, and sends you inspirational writing tips. Like many people, I do feel I have a novel in me. Is now as good a time as any to try to write it? Something about the idea of writing with the help of a social media Web site is off-putting. Maybe Im just jealous that so many of us feel we have novels in us. Do we?

No. No, we don’t. Resist!

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Newer Comments »
  1. Rose Gowen | November 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Oh, man, I love a catalogue! That’s a nice list of unread books!

  2. M.M. | November 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Willie does not sound German, nor does Talos. Stark rather does though. How funny.

  3. doug | November 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Wow. You’ve just won an epic game of literary “I have never.”

    Did you take a shot after each of those titles in the list? You’re supposed to.

  4. Alex Gilvarry | November 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I second some of those never read, including JR, Gravity’s Rainbow, Blood Meridian, all of Faulkner. I did painfully finish the Sound and the Fury (with extra fury). There is my opposite out there who I meet now and again at a party, and who, if they’ve read all of Faulkner, they’ve also read all of Blood Meridian, JR, the Pynchon’s, but haven’t read any of my good old standards. It’s a two-way street. I’ll out myself right now and admit to a big one: Ulysses. I bought Ulysses, I even took a class on Ulysses in college, meaning I’ve written papers on Ulysses, but I’ve never been able to actually read past page 35 of Ulysses. I found quitting smoking easier for me to do than finish Ulysses, it’s just the way I’m wired. God, it feels good to say that.

  5. Literary Man | November 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    The Recognitions is SO GOOD. Must get to the ending!

    Very interesting to consider that anti-German sentiment might’ve influenced the publishers in those early years after WWII. Makes sense in retrospect. Stark’s such a stronger name, metaphorically, than Talos.

  6. stone | November 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I second the call to resist NaNoWriMo. If you have a novel in you write (and edit) a novel, don’t push out 50,000 words as quickly as possible and say you have written a novel. You have not. You have written 50,000 words.

  7. mauie (The Traveling Reader) | November 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I remember a book character saying “yes, you may have finished writing a novel so fast but their gestational period took years” (or something to that effect). I think a story will just assert itself when it’s ready to come out in the open. A good writer recognizes that he has a story to tell and it’s his responsibility to let the world know about it. However, an even greater writer will take whatever measures he can to hone his craft whether that will bear a novel or not. So I believe, you join the Nanowrimo when you feel you’re ready to commit to it and don’t if you can’t.

  8. SnowPyramid | November 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    After I got through the zoological descriptions of whales in Moby Dick, I proclaimed that it was one of the most amazing books ever written. Then I stopped reading it :).

    The novel writing month thing is a good way to get worked up about something.

  9. African Violet | November 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    I feel as though you have a copy of the reading list from my alma mater or something. Henry Green’s Living? Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night? Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience? Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea? And I’ll tell you something: I think I may have read about half of each of those books in college, too.

    I read just enough (and took copious amounts of notes on everything else during lecture) to have something to discuss in my papers.

    The only book from that list that I’ve read is Tender is the Night, but that’s because I adore Fitzgerald.

  10. Robert Bailey | November 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    As I started to read I thought I would comment “I bet you read The Sound and the Fury (which I would underline if I knew html).” Then I read you had read it. Me too.

    I bet you read the KJV

  11. leah | November 4, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    How ironic- as i can never get through Moby Dick! I can understand not liking Faulkner- he’s an acquired taste, but DH Lawrence? Hardy?? Jane Eyre?? Gosh, I feel so well-read.

  12. EC | November 4, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Now I understand how before this gig Lorin Stein could’ve been James Wood’s editor!

  13. Joe Linker | November 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Good post. Sounds like what we need isn’t NaNoWriMo but YaYoReaMo. Yet where does this guilt tripping about what we should read, or should have read, come from? At the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, after all the books are burned, Montag, the former fireman who burned books, hooks up with the runaways, who have each memorized a single book, and devote their time to reciting it. We shouldn’t be judged, if we must be judged, by how many or which books we’ve read, but how well we’ve read what we have read. Or we could adopt the plan of Sartre’s character in Nausea, to read the entire library, in alphabetical order. Of course, we would want to avoid any literary conversations about Zola, but we’d be all over Aesop.

  14. Deb Fennell | November 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I thought I was the only one who couldn’t finish V. And I tried twice. And as an English major, I did not want to admit it.
    Joe Linker’s comment is spot on. Read what you read well. I would add, and because you like the book. I did like Moby Dick. So I read it.
    We all come with our own influences in our lives. It makes sense that some authors will appeal to a certain group of readers while others will appeal to another group. Does that make the book a “good” book? Ah, the eternal question of art. How do we judge “good”?

    My view-there are too many good books out there. So if you start a book and you really don’t like it? Stop. Unless, of course, you are supposed to be reading the book in your university class and then have to write a paper on it. However, it appears many of us have written papers on books we haven’t finished. My admission-I definitely did not read in entirety all of the plays of Shakespeare I was supposed to have read. And I wrote papers on them.

  15. Guy Aron | November 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I didn’t read Paradise Lost for my course on Milton. (When will someone bring out Paradise Lost for Dummies?) And The golden bowl has defeated me every time I’ve attempted it. But I think there’s something to be said for persevering with a book that initially doesn’t do it for you, or that you like then lose a bit on interest in. Proust takes a monstrous amount of perseverance, but it’s definitely worth it.

    I love Woody Allen’s comment, though, that if he had his time over again he’d do everything the same, except he wouldn’t read Beowulf!

  16. Tia Jakobs | November 7, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Impressive list! I have to admit that my list does have more than one likeness.

    On NaNoWriMo, I am a participant, and I think I can garantee that I will complete the task. But in my opinion, I’m not writing a novel in 30 days. However; I am writing a damn good first draft of something that will end up as a pretty good novel.
    The way I see it, there is no reason not to participate if one loves to write. If nothing else, it is an awesome opportunity to practice wrinting.

  17. mary | November 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I have been trying to read my list of not-reads and have been surprised on how much I like Faulkner, for instance, when I made it through the first thirty pages. Nanowrimo? That’s great and yes I do it. Great way to get the beginnings of a draft on paper or screen! Whatever… Give it a try.

  18. James McCaffery | November 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I love Beckett, Pynchon, Gaddis, Melville, Fielding, Sterne, Chandler, and Fitzgerald.

    On the other hand, I’ve never been able to get through an entire issue of The Paris Review.

    So there.

  19. Lorin Stein | November 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm


  20. Scott Huler | November 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I once admitted on NPR never to have read “Ulysses” and swore to quit trying — and almost immediately ended up in a reading group reading Ulysses, then eventually reading the Odyssey and retracing the travels of Odysseus through the Mediterranean. Moral, I think: Be careful what you don’t read.

  21. Scott Huler | November 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I once admitted on NPR never to have read “Ulysses” and swore to quit trying — and almost immediately ended up in a reading group reading “Ulysses,” then eventually reading “The Odyssey” and actually retracing the travels of Odysseus through the Mediterranean. Moral, I think: Be careful what you don’t read. p.s. i promise you: read Moby Dick. Totally worth it.

  22. Night Night McQueen | November 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    “If nothing else, it is an awesome opportunity to practice wrinting.”


  23. Adam Wilson | November 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Zeno’s Conscience is worth it, Stein.

  24. Lorin Stein | November 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Just for the record, I suspect they are ALL worth it!

  25. Jeremy Spencer | November 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Blood Meridian is an amazing work and the best western ever, plus I’d venture its villain is the most terrifying in all literature. It slumps at the end, sure, but it’s worth it. It helps to have read Moby-Dick, though, to fully appreciate the plays CMcC makes off the older tome.

    Gravity’s Rainbow: persevere! Such riches.

    Faulkner: I find them fast and incredibly enjoyable reading. A Light in August is a veritable page-turner. Such music.

  26. Brian A. Oard | November 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    It sounds like Lorin Stein needs to get busy and read something. I suggest starting with Finnegans Wake. Everything else will seem easy after that.

  27. L. | November 8, 2011 at 1:26 am

    My God, man! Read these damn books! All of them! No, but this is actually rather brave and really cool.

  28. wrongtable | November 8, 2011 at 1:41 am

    No one has mentioned the courage it took you to admit that you lied about having read books that you had not read. I think it is because everyone who commented have also lied in the same way, but don’t have the guts to admit it like you did. That is why your post is exceptional, and the comments banal.

  29. Charles Whaley | November 8, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    What have you read? Or do you not read?

  30. John | November 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I’m thinking of books I’ve bought with the attention of reading, selling them years later knowing I’ll never read them, then buying them again because I feel guilty for not reading them!
    Glastonbury Romance – John Cowper Powys
    Anatomy of Melancholy
    Tristram Shandy

  31. Ceska | March 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    he first section of this book is told through the eyes of Benjy Compson, a thirty-three year old mentally retarded man. Only Faulkner could tell a story from this viewpoint. This section is incredibly difficult to read because it has no chronology: Benjy has no concept of time so he jumps from event to event as the story progresses. Often, he will make a jump of thirty years with little or no warning to the reader. The reader should not be discouraged from reading because of this; the reading gets progressively easier through the book, and future sections will also explain what happened in Benjy’s section.

  32. Paul | March 29, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Just started reading ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ but have to admit morning seems a painfully long way off!

  33. Phil | November 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    NaNoWriMo considers a book to be 50,000 words. At least that is their cut off point for “winning” The main purpose is to get a first draft down. Only a nitwit would think you are actually writing a novel in that month. You are writing the start of a first draft. The good is it makes you sit down and write. And shut up the inner editor. You can’t go back and poke. That is what the second draft/revision is for. Does it work? Well my sister, bless her is working on her third book. She’s been poking at it for a year and has 10,000 words done. I’m on my second book. The first one from Camp NaNoWriMo in July is in revision which is on hold for this one. I wrote 70,007 words in July only part of my 85000. This one will prob be around the 90000 when I finish. It makes you get off your tush and stop whining that “I really have a novel in me if I ever get around to writing it” Or the dreaded “I’ve been working on this for 5 years” Heaven help us. Just Do It.

  34. Samuel Mullen | November 10, 2014 at 10:16 am

    (in the autor’s voice:) But I have read Tolstoy, I have read Gogol, Joyce (could someone who is better read than me continue this list?)

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