A Shocking Display of Complete Ignorance
Once upon a time I sat down in my first GCSE English class and waited for the teacher to arrive. It wasn’t long before he’d sauntered in to the room and declared to us, before even introducing himself, that he would not be teaching us Of Mice and Men, because he hated it. We’d be doing the short stories in the anthology instead. I enjoyed the short stories immensely (it was the first time I’d read Hemingway or Plath), but still wonder what I missed out on.
That was nearly twelve years ago now, and I still haven’t read Of Mice and Men.
In fact, there’s a lot of things I haven’t read. An anxiety inducing amount of things.
I remember slightly later on, one of my A level teachers gave us an extract from Middlemarch. None of us recognised it. She said the examiners would expect us to have read Middlemarch. Ruh roh. Luckily I still managed to get my A levels without reading it.
One of my favourite anecdotes about the prodigiously well-read is that Coleridge was reportedly the last man to have read everything that had been written. This is certainly bollocks, but illustrates the point all the same. Who today could possibly claim to have read a hundredth of what is written, let alone all of it?
So, I must accept that I can’t read everything. I can’t even read all the books I own, because I keep buying more.
But still, here’s a laundry list of things I really ought to have read, but haven’t:
Of Mice and Men
To Kill a Mockingbird
A lot of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, King Lear)
North and South
The Age of Innocence
There’s more, I’m sure, that’s just slipped my mind. This isn’t counting the things I never read in school that everyone else did (1984, Animal Farm, The Catcher in the Rye). That also doesn’t mention things like Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, that I am familiar with but am by no means an expert on.
Until as recently as last week, Pride and Prejudice was on that list. No one ever made me read it, and I hadn’t ever gotten around to it. I have vague memories of bunking off reading Persuasion at university, but no one expected us to have read Pride and Prejudice. And really, I ought to have read Pride and Prejudice. So I decided to give it a go. I didn’t have high hopes. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. But everyone raves about it and it’s one of those works that is constantly floating around in the public imagination, and I hadn’t even watched an adaptation of it. It was a huge gap in my knowledge.
It wasn’t as boring as I expected it to be. I knew it to be a comedy of manners, so I expected lots of drawing room conversations and scandalous gossip, and I knew Austen raised gossip to an artform. I knew enough, basically, to figure I wouldn’t be interested. But I thought I’d grind through it and be able to talk to people about it even if I didn’t like it.
It wasn’t a grind though. It went down easy. The prose is very, very modern. Even the fact it’s largely an epistolary novel doesn’t make it seem slow or archaic, given how much of our communications even with the people we love dearest are now done through text, and at a distance.
Austen does a remarkable job of portraying subtle shades of emotion and the ability of the human mind to trick itself and think past itself even as you are not conscious of the process. I still found it a bit difficult to care *that* much about what happened to the characters, but their inner emotional lives were certainly engaging, and Austen captures a certain interplay of egos that is interesting to watch unfold.
I don’t regret waiting this long to read it. Five years ago I might have found Elizabeth insufferable. Now, I know what it is to have grown up a bit and be sure who you are, only to have circumstances change and thus you with them, imperceptibly at first but then unignorably, such as you do even more growing up, and your ignorance is revealed to you. I should suppose if I had any grown daughters, it should take on new dimensions.
I fully intend to have read all the things. I want to read Middlemarch and Bleak House. I will, one day. Maybe I should try move that day forward, because the dips I’ve taken back in to the canon since passing the point of being forced to swim in it, I’ve enjoyed. And it is the canon for a reason.