Readers all have at least one: the work of genius that has been praised to the skies by everyone, has been taught in high schools and colleges forever and is acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements in the history of putting words on paper. Acknowledged, that is, by everyone except you. You don’t get it. Too wordy, too abstract, how is this all the whale’s fault?
We asked a few local bibliophiles for their stories about the stories they just could not love.
Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Being forced to read Crime and Punishment really should be the punishment for a very serious crime. I had to read Dostoyevsky’s “great novel” for my AP English class my senior year of high school. The entire year’s curriculum was focused solely on existentialism, so by the time we got to Crime and Punishment, I was firmly rooted in the mindset that life is pointless and nothing matters—especially the Dostoyevsky unit. I trudged through this dismal, anxiety-inducing, poorly translated piece of utter rubbish with all the enthusiasm of one who is headed to the dentist for a root canal, and my grades reflected that. In the end, I found myself wishing that Rodin Raskolnikov (the main character) would have axe-murdered me along with the pawnbroker to save me from reading 600 pages of his torturous internal angst.
Katie Wagner – Senior Editor/Online Editor, Mt. Lebanon Magazine
by James Joyce
Years ago, while still under the influence of a tremendous one-man show about James Joyce, I made the mistake of checking Ulysses out of the Wilkinsburg Library. The librarian was delighted with my selection, and we had quite a fizzy conversation about the author, about Ireland—the previous year I had spent a week there and thus considered myself practically a native son—and about the towering, undisputed genius of the work.
Every time I came into the library after that, he would seek me out, ask where I was in the book, how I was enjoying it—you know they’re having a Bloomsday reading at the Harp and Fiddle this year—then I would go home, open up Ulysses again and once more I would look at Joyce’s prose the way a monkey looks at a chemistry set.
My increasingly vague responses—“Um, yeah, that part was really … really something”—did not stop the librarian’s attempts to spark a discussion. Eventually I had to move.
Merle Jantz – Managing Editor, Mt. Lebanon Magazine
Read it first in a high school literature class (guided by a teacher who said his Book That Scarred Him For Life was Paradise Lost.) That same teacher insisted we memorize the first 11 lines of the epic poem in Old English and write it on command for a test grade. I was typically a compliant student, but I couldn’t see the point and refused to do it. I kept coming up with excuses why I had to leave class on days when it was due. As if that weren’t bad enough, it surfaced again in a college literature class and AGAIN in a college course on medieval studies. Of course, all THREE instructors had completely different interpretations of what I was supposed to get out of reading it. I hope I never have to read it again.
Laura Pace Lilley – Editor in chief, Mt. Lebanon Magazine
by Cormac McCarthy
I knew nothing about the novel and thought it was a buddy road trip adventure, only to be plunged into a story about a father and son traversing a cold and bleak post-apocalyptic world in fear for their lives from survivors who have become cannibalistic predators. Some of the book’s chilling scenes caused me to have nightmares, and I considered tossing it aside but decided to tough it out because I really wanted to find out what happened to the man and his son. The book is filled with death, destruction, loss and loneliness, but at its core is the bond of love between father and son. And the ending, well, you’ll just have to tough it out on your own.
Diane Cyphers – Mt. Lebanon Magazine Advertising Manager
by Charlotte Bronte
I know it’s a classic, but I found Jane Eyre to be an exhausting read in seventh grade. The only thing slower than its pacing was my teacher’s unbelievably dry exposition. Day after day, it just seemed to drag on. I literally felt that time stopped in between each word of its text, and I struggled to keep my eyes open so much that it turned me off of reading anything beyond a comic book for years. I know I missed out on this one, and I am sure I am more wrong than right, but it still stands out to me as my most regretful read.
State Rep. Dan Miller
by Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael.” Right off the bat—the first sentence in this 700-page novel features a footnote. This is not an encouraging sign. Water, water, everywhere … Throughout college I avoided all classes that might involve reading this great American novel. But Jackson Pollock tripped me up. Under the influence of Melville’s vast expansive sea, Pollock painted his drippy, swirly massive canvases. I guess it’s culturally literate to know that the Starbucks name comes from Melville’s musings.
Elaine Wertheim – Mt. Lebanon Magazine contributing writer
by Louisa May Alcott
I know what you’re thinking: What sort of self-respecting writer, English writing major and mother of two daughters would ever admit to never reading Little Women? Passing on this classic of Civil War era women, their lives, hopes and dreams, and the gender-bending character Jo, who liked wearing men’s clothing, and wanted to be a writer?
Was it because everyone else had read/was reading/or was getting ready to read it? Probably. I reflexively went against current tastes in my book choices. For instance, I liked reading my brother’s Boy Scout manual describing how to make a box oven, or how to tie a sheepshank.
Maybe it was the title. “The very title summons up preconceptions of treacly do-gooders in a smarmy children’s story,” said film critic Roger Ebert. I have to agree.
Little Women sounded vaguely condescending to me. I can see now that I was thumbing my nose at this story of 19th century American womanhood. I was coming of age in the era of Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem, wasn’t I?
Still, I am embarrassed at my wrongheadedness, and have promised myself to spend a weekend this winter reading it, wearing trousers and a bow tie in penance.
I didn’t read Huckleberry Finn either. But I did see the Disney movie.
Anne Caffee – Mt. Lebanon Magazine contributing writer