In response to Lying About Books:
Interesting conundrum: if being literate is scoffed at as being elite and out of touch with “real” people, then why do the “real” people lie about the extent of their reading?
I suspect this situation is somewhat paralleled by the number of people who tell you they were at Woodstock (it’s in the millions by now). What this tells me is that lying about reading isn’t designed to represent the non-reader as a reader, but rather to expose the need of all humans to be a part of the group, even if it smacks of being well-read and (goodness) a bit snobbish. I have heard the same sort of lying in totally un-literary situations (Ritual seppuku? Of course, hasn’t everyone?). Add the need to feel superior or at least an equal to the growing Idiocracy in this country and we have an ideal medium for just this sort of prevarication.
Now, about those highly representative titles: Yes, in the United States they would be more like you suggest, but just to maintain your belief in English literature, and to give you something else to gasp and turn green over, I am hearing more and more that Harry Potter should be universally read and even taught at the university in place of irrelevant old writers like Shakespeare. Think of it: Harry Potter snobs! Even the Ideocracy is cringing over that one.
Which brings up the question of The Lord of the Rings. When I was an undergraduate, Tolkien was still teaching and writing and we used several of his texts or translations in classes centered around Medieval literature. The Lord of the Rings had been completed not that long before and I believe was first being published in paperbound editions. Therefore, I read the complete series with both interest in the fantasy and interest in the medievalism of the text. In many ways, The Lord of the Rings was an imaginative textbook of medieval literature, from Quem Quaritas Trop through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on up to The Faerie Queene.
But what would be my five books to demonstrate a persons literary acumen? I’ll go with this list but I’m sure everyone has their own ideas which they might share.
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.