Top Five Unread Canons of Literature

In the Shakespeare Top 10 thread Tracy suggested the top five canonical but unread works of literature. This is a hard one simply because some works are reasonably well read whereas others are on lots of shelves unread.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce. Everyone talks about it. It’s considered the greatest piece of 20th century literature. I’ve yet to meet a single person who’s read it all the way through. I’ve tried many times.

2. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. I think that the Inferno is actually fairly well read. Not Shakespeare well read, but for this genre probably close to the top. But how many have actually made it all the way through the whole comedy? There something to be said for hell, which is also the attraction in Milton I think.

3. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained by John Milton. I think Paradise Lost is better read than some, but perhaps not as much as it ought be. But be honest, has anyone made it through Paradise Regained here? Like with Dante, heaven just isn’t as interesting as its opposite.

4. The Trial by Franz Kafka. He’s one of my favorite authors but I can honestly say I’ve never quite made it all the way through The Trial. The Castle might be close. Both bring to bear a tedium of bureaucracy that is quite painful. I’ve read all his shorter works (some only a few paragraphs long) Kafka’s a genius best taken, like strong cheese, in small doses.

5. The Idyls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. I love this book. But honestly, outside of the popular sub-books, has anyone actually read all this?

56 thoughts on “Top Five Unread Canons of Literature

  1. Clark, most people read excerpts of those, at least….

    how about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past? Now THAT is something people talk about but never read. Oh, and the Decameron.

  2. Reminds me of that great Mark Twain definition that a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.”

    I have not read any of those you list, Clark, nor do I know anyone who has. As a scientist I would also list Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

  3. Kristine, both the Inferno and Paradise Lost are well, well worth reading as are at least parts of Tennyson.

  4. I may have read The Trial, I can’t remember. None of the others, though. Not all the way through.

    But then, I haven’t read any of those Shakespeare plays you guys are talking about in the other thread, either.

  5. I haven’t read the Tennyson. Or Proust. And I have only read excerpts of The Decameron.

    I think The Castle more so than The Trial because The Trial shows up on more syllabi.

    You know what I skimmed-read? Faust II. Just couldn’t fully engage it.

    I’m trying to think if there’s anything that people would be scandalized to know that I hadn’t read. Hmmm.

  6. I bet there are a hundred readers of Paradise Lost for every one reader of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.

    Gerusalemme liberata and Orlando furioso are also more talked about than read.

    One book that I couldn’t stomach was Tristram Shandy. Life is too short for me to have read more than a few pages.

  7. I tried Ulysses, there was no way. I read the Trial, and only finished it so I could tell myself I’d read it. I had no idea what I read though, so it was a waste of time.

  8. I actually read Ulysses all the way through the year I turned 30. It’s not unlike the Book of Mormon — there are some rough parts about halfway in, but if you can push through those it’s actually a great read. It helps to read a plot overview, and I have a copy of Ulysses Annotated that also helped.

    I do intend to get to Tristram Shandy someday…maybe the year I turn 40.

    The only other book on the list that I’ve read is the Divine Comedy, but that was a school assignment.

  9. Bill, but is the Faerie Queene as good as the above 5?
    OK, it’s arguably up there with Idyls of the King, although I’d put Idyls first.

    William, I nearly put the Castle up. I alternated between the two as I feel pretty much the same way about both. I tipped towards the Trial just because it is a tad more tedious. Although in many ways both are pretty numbing.

  10. I’d have to quibble with Clark’s standards for “unread.” By his criteria, the Bible would be the number one unread canonical work because no one reads every last word. What percentage of a work to people have to read before it qualifies?

    I think Ulysses and Proust are two very good choices. However, most unread literature is unread for a reason: it’s long-winded or impenetrable, and frequently both.

  11. I’m currently working on Paradise Lost. I picked it up in an airport and it is my current plane reading material. I’m quite sure that I don’t understand any of the allusions he’s making to other literature, but it is enjoyable even without that understanding.

  12. John, LOL. Sorry about that. I kept switching from The Trial to The Castle. On one of the switches I nabbed a link to the Castle but grabbed one to some DVD I’d never heard of by the same name rather than the Kafka one I wanted. Then I switched my decision back to The Trial and didn’t switch the link – making it even weirder. I put it back to the right novel. But I’m glad someone clicked on one of the links. Makes me feel the links were worth it.

  13. I think the Bible isn’t literature in the normal sense of the term. But yeah, it’d probably count. I picked books though that I suspect few have read and of those who have started few made it past the halfway mark. (Thus Dante and Milton)

    BTW – for a fun link, go to the literary canon and pick a list of canonical books. See how many you’ve actually read. I was a physics and math major, so it wasn’t quite as big a deal to me. I was actually surprised I’d read as many as I had.

    Here are a few I could have added to my list, I think.

    The Æneid
    The Odyssey

    I can confess to having read none of these. Yes, my readings of the Greek classics was far more limited than I care to admit. Although I’ve read tons of Plato.

  14. I read every last word of the Bible, but I should have skipped some, and have no inclination to read the whole thing again.

    I read every last word of Remembrance of Things Past. Proust takes a great deal of commitment–some of it tough to get through and a couple hundred pages could be skipped; but there are moments of great beauty along the way and the last volume is such a treasure–you have to work to get there, and you get this great treasure. It takes something like 200 hours to read the book and I got so used to the company of it that I still miss reading, almost like you miss a friend. I will read this again.

    I read all of The Divine Comedy. Sure, Inferno is cool, but going the whole journey, the last few cantos in Paradise are transcendent. There are certain passages and events in scripture that come with a whole new light and understanding now. If you decide to read it, get the most readable translation you can find. I don’t think I need to read this one again.

    One of the really old works should make the list: Ovid, Virgil, Homer. Everyone knows Homer, but does anyone actually read it? What about Chaucer?

    And Tristram Shandy definitely was an awesome movie.

  15. Clark, one summer when I was a teenager, I decided my education was lacking and that I would set about reading the Great Books series. I started with volume 14 and read through all of Plutarch’s Lives, an idea I’d had from Frankenstein’s monster. Next, I went to volume 31, Descartes and Spinoza. After that I decided to take a break, and then I got busy with other things, and school started again, and my utopian educational dream went unfulfilled. I’ve since read many more elements of that collection, but I still have many shameful gaps such as Origin of Species, and Wealth of Nations.

    Two longish books I would like to read sometime are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

    Another crazy project I have is to one day read the entire comedie humaine of Balzac, of which I’ve probably read about a quarter of the novels. Not much is better than Illusions perdues and its sequel, Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes. I certainly prefer them to Proust, who, after about 50 pages, I laid aside. I would like to get back to it sometime – I quit because I got busy, not because I didn’t like it. On the other hand, I haven’t seemed to be in a hurry to start back up.

  16. I read ‘Paradise Lost’ for school but don’t remember much about it. Whenever I think of it or Milton now, my thoughts immediately turn to Donald Sutherland from ‘Animal House’:

    OK, don’t write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring, too. He’s a little bit long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into modern times, and his jokes are terrible.

  17. Oh, and how about adding ‘Moby-Dick’ to this list? It was assigned for a college class and I don’t think anybody in the class, myself included, finished. I made it through about 5 chapters before beginning to contemplate gouging my own eyes out with a sharpened spoon.

  18. I’m embarassed that I didn’t actually finish Moby-Dick until last year. I read 90% of it for college, but the class moved on before I had a chance to finish.

    It’s definitely worth the work.

  19. Tracy, right — The Canterbury Tales really does belong on the list. Not only is it rarely read, it’s also pretty wonderful. And also Beowulf, if we’re willing to go all Old-English.

  20. I just read a news article a week ago that “War and Peace” was being removed from a library because it hadn’t been checked out in over ten years…

  21. ugh, Moby Dick.

    That is not a work of literature.

    It’s a whaling history disguised as a work of literature.

    I fell asleep on a stationary exercise bike WHILE PEDDLING trying to read that book.

    An entire chapter on hemp rope? Where was his editor?!

    Sharpening the spoon, I suspect.

    I do think “Call me Ismael” is one of the best opening lines ever. Which pisses me off even more, if I dwell on it.

    I couldn’t get past the first page of “A Tale of Two Cities” and I’ve never read Tolstoy.

  22. BrianV: I knew there was a major, major blind spot. I have never read Moby Dick. I haven’t read Tristam Shandy or Pamela either, but that’s not quite as bad as my emphasis has been the mid 19th/early 20th century novel.

    The Faerie Queene isn’t so bad if you skim some parts — in some places it’s quite beautiful.

    Bill: That’s an ambitious project. I’ve read 4 or 5 of the novels in the series. I’m a big fan of Vautrin. What a great character [not great in a moral sense — great in an entertaining sense]. The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans is the best Balzac to begin with, in my opinion. Although it seems like Cousin Bette, Lost Illusions and Father Goriot are the novels that show up on college reading lists.


    Reading The Trial and The Castle is numbing? Hmmm. Maybe I need to write a post on reading Kafka.

  23. “Have I mentioned that I’m the preeminent Proust scholar in America?”

    I was slightly disappointed by “Little Miss Sunshine.” Great cast, great performances, weak script, mediocre, but artsy, direction. It sort of felt like a cliched 90s indie movie to me. There were a few good moments, but I didn’t find it all that funny or poignant.

  24. I’ve actually read “Beowulf”- but not willingly. It’s Chaucer who I find almost unreadable- even if with careful attention to diction it might be brilliant stuff- it really is difficult… sorry. And I feel the same way about Milton- (which is part of why Wills is the preeminent English Language author- it’s readable, accessible and enjoyable!)

    Now let’s just ignore my own grammar and tragic sentence construction.

  25. Little Miss Sunshine was brilliant. It took a whole bunch of 90s indie movie cliches (not to mention National Lampoon road trip cliches) and managed to create much more nuanced and well-rounded characters and scenes out of them. BTD Greg and Allison generally have good judgment, but on this one, I beg to differ. Also, False Henry Gale is not evil.

  26. Moby Dick is brilliant. One of my favorite classes ever was a graduate seminar on Moby Dick. Not too many works could have supported a class like that. There was still plenty to talk about by the end of the semester.

  27. Also, everyone should read The Brothers Karamazov.

    In the US, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is my vote for #1 work of literature that people reference without having read.

  28. Chaucer is SO HARD to read- that’s got to be on here somewhere.

    Yeah, but almost everyone is forced to read him sometime during their education.

    Moby Dick is a great pick. I keep meaning to try to read it but never have. I’ve heard so much about it though. I can’t believe I left that one out.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great pick also. It’s definitely a “great novel” but I’ve only met one person who’s read it.

    Reading The Trial and The Castle is numbing? Hmmm. Maybe I need to write a post on reading Kafka.

    As I said, Kafka’s by far my favorite author. And I love almost every one of his shorter works. But yeah, both of those books just convey their topic matter too well. Despite loving Kafka and having read him regularly I’ve never finished either.

    But a Kafka thread would be great. I’ll eagerly await your post.

  29. We’ve read Ulysses, Paradise Lost, Idylls of the King, Moby Dick, and now War and Peace in our book club. Now I’ll have to put some of these others on our list. I like having a deadline and people to discuss books with to get me to read some of the tomes I have avoided over the years. Paradise Lost and Idylls of the King have become favorites of mine.

    I wish that the classical mythology stories were more familiar to more readers–knowing a large portion of them has helped me immensely in both reading literature and in adding depth to discussions. THe other day my daughter said that public education in our town was like a Procrustean bed–it rather delighted me that mythology was enough her property that she could think about and make those kinds of connections.

  30. Uncle Tom’s Cabin pretty much sucks. It is important purely because it is seen as having an impact on the Civil War. As propaganda it was bad, as literature it is worse.

  31. In response to #34.

    Bryce, you just described my personal 7th layer of hell.

    I would need to remove my own eyes and liver with a rusty dull spoon.

  32. If you include non-fictional literature, there are plenty of examples. “Wealth of Nations,” “Das Kapital,” “Leviathan,” “The Prince.”

    Heck, I was a philosophy major with a working knowledge of Kant, and I’ve never even considered actually reading “Critique of Pure Reason.”

  33. How about Tolstoy’s War and Peace? I was a Russian major, yet I didn’t read it until after college. When my first baby was born I finally decided to read it, since I had so much time just sitting around and nursing her. I absolutely loved it! It is long and complex but a great classic novel.

  34. Oops, I missed the comments by Matt W. and Idahospud referencing War and Peace. Did you enjoy it, Idahospud?

    I’m glad Bryce I. plugged some Dostoevsky, too! (I actually haven’t read the whole of Brothers Karamazov. What I’ve read was great, though.) I just finished The Idiot, and loved it.

  35. Michelle, you really need to finish Bros. Karamazov — fantastic stuff. And reading War and Peace is not as satisfying as telling people that you’ve read War and Peace.

    I confess that Thomas Hardy just doesn’t do it for me, though. Jude the Obscure was too hard.

  36. I liked Little Miss Sunshine okay, but I am getting a bit tired of the embarrassing/exhilirating-public-performance-of-pop-music-by-geeks denouement. Add LMS to the growing list: Napolean Dynamite, Love Actually, About a Boy…

  37. #45 Michelle–I’m reading it for February’s book club, and I’m only about 150 pages in. So far, so good, but I have to keep checking who’s who and belongs with whom and has what nickname, etc. Crazy Ruskies.

    #47–Tess was so heartbreaking; I have never wanted to change the ending of a book more badly in my life.

  38. Supergenius, you say? More like SuperLOSER! Hardy is brilliant. I audited a Hardy seminar in my final undergraduate semester, and attended it more often than my physics classes that I needed to graduate.

    I have often thought that Jude the Obscure should be required reading for newly-returned LDS missionaries.

    I tried in vain to get my wife to consider the name Thomasin for one of our daughters.

    For easier Hardy (and he’s not really that hard), try Far from the Madding Crowd.

  39. #51 Clark, try Far from the Madding Crowd–it is worth finishing. I love the ending. (Not depressing!)

  40. Here’s and interesting article on Hardy that appeared last week. The only Hardy novel I’ve read is Return of the Native, which I enjoyed, but for that sort of thing I prefer Adam Bede or The Rainbow.

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