David Lodge’s classic campus comedy, Changing Places (1975), introduced a game called Humiliation, which readers have been playing to their red-faced delight ever since. Players get together in a group and confess the canonical works that they have failed to read, scoring a point for each other person who has read it. In Lodge’s book, in which American and English academics have traded places for visiting professorships, the winner (and loser) is an obnoxious American academic who admits that he hasn’t read Hamlet. He wins the game but ultimately loses his job.
There’s more than a little snobbery in the premise of Lodge’s game. Most of the professors (whom he is satirizing) are expressing academic disdain for works they have avoided more than they are admitting their own failures as readers. And while it’s great to have check marks next to all of the classics, there’s something to be said for making time for other kinds of books as well.
That said, Humiliation can be good for a book group. In the busy holiday season when some find it difficult to make time for reading, it makes a nice alternative to the standard meeting. Try this variation: each reader lists five books or authors that he or she feels the most awkward or frustrated about never having read. You don’t have to pick important classics. List any book that you’ve always intended to read but somehow never found time for. Announce all the titles aloud—the confession is half the fun. As titles are announced, each reader should score one point for each book he or she has read. Give prizes to the readers who are least and most humiliated (scoring the most and fewest points). Follow up by turning the game into the theme for your next meeting: have each reader try one of the books from their list of literary humiliations.
When it comes to the Fagles, my score is in bagels.
My pat answer used to be Jane Austen. I hadn’t read any of her works (although lamely, I knew all the plots from movies). I finally read Pride and Prejudice last year, so it’s time for a new list:
1. The Odyssey and The Iliad: This is my current Achilles’ heel. How I got through school without ever reading these, I’m not sure, but when it comes to the Fagles, my score is in bagels, and for all the other translations as well. It’s just a bunch of myths, so who cares anyway, right? Actually, I’m an authority. From the movie Troy, I learned about those giant flaming balls of string they let loose on the beach, and Ray Harryhausen showed me everything I need to know about the Cyclops.
2. French classics: Hugo? I have not gone. In matters Dumas, I choose the southern pronunciation, confessing that I am a dumb-ass. Stendahl? Zola? Colette? Balzac? Proust? Verne? Sartre? Flaubert? de Maupassant? Mais non. To make matters worse, I speak a little French, I’ve been to France three times, but the only French classic I’ve read is Voltaire’s Candide, which at less than 200 pages, is more miserable than formidable.
3. George Eliot: Whether Middlemarch, Marner, or The Mill on the Floss (What does that title even mean? Is the Floss a river? Is this some strange dental hygiene process?), Adam Bede, or Daniel Deronda. For all I know, George could be T. S.’s brother. And I haven’t read that other dude, George Sand, either.
4. Jonathan Franzen: Time for something more modern: while I engaged in many heated discussions regarding Franzen’s snubbing of Oprah, I’ve never found the time for either The Corrections or Freedom. It would seem anti-climactic to read them now. Until he writes another big book that I never get to, I’ll save my reading time for another fat fantasy epic instead. My batting average for the rest of Oprah’s choices is probably below the Mendoza line as well.
5. Fantasy fiction: While I’m on the subject of fantasy, let’s call the roll of authors I haven’t read: Mercedes Lackey, Tad Williams, Terry Goodkind, David Farland, Patricia Briggs, Mervyn Peake, L. E. Modesitt, Steven Brust . . . I could go on. This wouldn’t be a crime for most readers, but given that book I wrote about fantasy, these give me some serious chagrin.
I shouldn’t be alone in my humiliation. I challenge all of the other Booklist regulars and bloggers to comment below with their own lists. And you, dear reader, (shame on you!), should join in.