I have never been someone who reads classic novels. I’ve always pretended. My ever-pretentious grandma would tell my ever-naive great-grandma about how “literary” I am, how “well-read” and “cultured,” while I sat between the two of them, nodding, thinking, If only you knew. It became an awful cycle: my great-grandma writes a monthly newsletter, which is then sent out to the entire extended family, and my name will often be attached to assertions such as, “Lauren has read all the classics; she makes such intelligent conversation, always impressing Glenna [my grandma] with her knowledge.” Then, of course, my great aunts and uncles, when they see me every two to three years, say things like, “How are your English courses going?” And I respond with, “Oh, you know, really great.” And they ask, “What have you read lately?” And then I have to think of some smart title – Moby Dick, maybe, or Flannery O’Connor’s entire collection of short stories (neither of which I have read) – to pretend to be reading, all the while feeling ashamed of the fact that what I’m actually reading is a Chick-Lit novel called How to Meet Cute Boys. (This book actually exists.)
This problem has only worsened with time. I have dug a hole for myself. The older I get, the more embarrassing it becomes for me to never have read certain titles. For example, I have never read Lord of the Flies. I don’t know what to tell you; it just never happened for me. But I can’t read it now. Logistically, I cannot carry a copy of Lord of the Flies around campus, read it during my spare time, let my peers see that thin volume in my bag. I mean, I could. But how embarrassing! The shame I would feel over people finding out that I have never read a novel that most eighth graders have under their belts far overshadows my desire to actually read it. And the longer I wait, the less likely I am to suck it up – to face my fear and just buy the damn book. At this point in my life, I have admitted defeat: I will never read Lord of the Flies. I’m sorry, William Golding.
For quite some time, my secret – not just that I have never read Lord of the Flies, but that the only classics I have read and remembered were written by William Shakespeare (and that was only because I had a crush on my high school English teacher) – remained safe. I nodded and smiled during those dreaded family discussions, happy to pretend I was every bit as literary as my grandma boasted, just as long as no one asked any questions (which they never did, as I don’t believe they ever read the classics either). I really thought I would get through my whole life this way – skating by, avoiding classics out of fear of anyone finding out I hadn’t read them yet, acting much smarter than I actually am. I really did. But over the summer, I made the mistake of dating someone who, though not an English or Writing major, was fairly intelligent. And because he was fairly intelligent, he assumed that I – being someone he was interested in – was also fairly intelligent. And because I am a Writing major and he is not, he assumed that I knew a great deal more than he did about books and writing, and that I had read – yes – the classics.
I instantly went through my entire book collection. I managed to find, scattered among piles of titles like The Thirty-Day Seduction and Boy Meets Girl, about fifteen classics, including Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Frankenstein, and Anna Karenina. I made a checklist and taped it to my wall, resolving to read them all by the end of the summer. I don’t think I need to tell you how that went. Suffice it to say that I read twenty-six pages of Nabokov – making sure to name-drop it in conversation with my ex-boyfriend’s mom, of course, before running, terrified, back into the open arms of How to Meet Cute Boys.
I am trying to reform, however. I signed up for a Novel course this semester, a course in which I am required to read seven classics. I have already failed to read Robinson Crusoe (please don’t tell Dr. Robertson). But I have high hopes for Gulliver’s Travels. You see, this class levels the playing field. In this class, no one has to know that these are perhaps the first classics I will ever read from beginning to end. No one has to know that, despite two years of Advanced Placement English, my literary repertoire consists of Chick-Lit and the Harry Potter series, not The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe I can be a new person now. Maybe the next time my grandma asks me what I have read lately, I can say something along the lines of, “I read Paradise Lost recently, and you know what? It draws heavily upon its predecessors, Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.” And I won’t be lying. I’ll actually know.