A few weeks ago, a friend whose literary taste I greatly respect compared something or someone we were talking about to Fences, August Wilson’s seminal play about family and race in the 1950’s. “Oh, I loved that play,” my husband enthusiastically replied. They both then looked at me for my reaction, knowing my relationship with books. “Idon’tthinkI’vereadthatone,” I hastily replied. Now, I didn’t really think I hadn’t read it–I knew I hadn’t. Because my very fancy shmancy English degree, and my well-crafted reputation as a reader and book connoisseur has several noticeable holes.
I went to an all girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn. It prepared me tremendously for the real world. I learned how to speak when I wanted my voice to be heard, and my marvelous English classes allowed me to read books that connected with the girl I was, not with the person the canon wanted me to be (I’m looking at you, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). When I got to college, my school’s English department was big enough to get lost in, so I did. I managed to take several classes on Hemingway and none on anything non-European.
So I wasn’t surprised to discover that my friends were all talking about this great masterpiece I’d somehow never read. I’ve never read lots of things I should have. The Grapes of Wrath? Got about 100 pages in after loving East of Eden. Anything by a Russian? Nichego. (I looked that up. It means nothing in Russian.) The Canterbury Tales? I’ve read that one! Well, some of that one. There are whole centuries of poetry I’m ignorant about, and I have an embarrassingly un-dogeared copy of Don Quixote.
But usually I’m able to hide the fact that I haven’t read the canon as carefully as I should have. I usually take one of two approaches when I find myself faced with that kind of situation: I pretend I’m too hip and cool and progressive for the canon, or I clam up and wait until the conversation is over. Oh, War and Peace? Sure, I guess that’s worth reading, but I’m really into dystopic YA right now.
But this time I couldn’t avoid the conversation, and these were people who KNEW I wasn’t too cool for the canon, so I had to swallow my pride and admit I’d never read Fences.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when a copy of the play turned up on my desk the next day. After a warning not to picture Denzel when reading it, my colleague left the play in my hands. It taunted my on my desk for weeks. Look what you haven’t read, it seemed to say. You think you’re so literary? You haven’t even read Fences! Finally, New Year’s resolutions in hand, I decided to tackle the play. ALl I knew was that it was about race and baseball, and NOT about Denzel. How bad could it be?
I loved it. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved how complicated the characters and the relationships were. I really respected Troy for a good part of the play. And then, all of a sudden, I hated him. I was so sad when he told Rose he had had an affair, but I actually teared up at the beautiful two strikes metaphor. I was so proud of Cory at the end, when he didn’t want to go to Troy’s funeral, but I was also so glad he went anyway.
Could Fences have gone the other way? Absolutely. I was afraid at the beginning of the play that it was going to be Death of a Salesman times two (a play I love so much I cried on a public bus when it was over). But it wasn’t. It was so much more complicated than that.
I’m not going to be as hubristic as to say that I’m going to add “reading books I should have read” to my list of New Year’s resolutions. I know that I won’t really do that. But I think it’s worth tackling one of those canonical monsters every once in a while, and I’m going to try to make more of a concentrated effort to do so.
What about you? What Great Books (don’t miss the caps there) have you never read? Any you’re sad to have missed? Any you’ve read and loved or hated?