Media Confession: What classic book have you *never* read?

I’m curious how many other people share my particular secret guilt: The knowledge, gnawing away inside you, that there is a classic book that you know you should have read by now but never have.

I’m convinced everyone must know of a book (or movie or TV show) that is widely disseminated in popular culture —but that if word ever got out that they, themselves, had never consumed it, they would never again be considered hip or urbane or literate. That they, in fact, will never get invited to hang with cool people again.

For me, that book was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the children’s classic by Norton Juster.

I think I was always bothered that the giant dog thing looked so pissed. Very off-putting.

When my well-read friends ever speak of it — even if they overhear it referenced in passing conversation — they always stop to comment, “Oh, I loved that book.” To which someone else will reply, “Yeah, that was great, wasn’t it?”

I don’t know how I missed it. I ever remember the librarian sitting us down and reading excerpts to us at Beechwoods Elementary. I remember sitting crossed-legged on an ochre carpet thinking that any book with a title like that was sure to be good. Then, for whatever reason, I never picked it up.

Thirty years later, driven mad by guilt (and the thousand-somethingth time I had been left out of a conversation about it), I finally picked up a copy and read it.

The monkey is off my back! But oh, my friends, my book-loving, media-savvy, witty and wise friends: I found it tedious.

Yes, I’ve just compounded my original sin (not reading a classic) with a newer, fouler sin (not loving a classic). I didn’t realize “Phantom Tollbooth” was a quite literal allegory about the search for knowledge, and the merits of learning over ignorance and complacency. Milo, the personality-free cipher of a protagonist, experiences a series of random, quip-laden encounters with school-bookish characters like the Spelling Bee and Mathemagician and the Threadbare Excuse.

“Well, you might say I’m a specialist,” said [Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord]. “I specialize in noise — all kinds — from the loudest to the softest, and from the slightly annoying to the terribly unpleasant. For instance, have you ever heard a square-wheeled steam roller ride over a street of hard-boiled eggs?” …

“But who would want all those terrible noises?” asked Milo, holding his ears.

“Everybody does,” said the surprised doctor; “they’re very popular today. Why, I’m kept so busy I can hardly fill the orders for noise pills, racket lotion, clamor salve, and hubbub tonic. … Without them, people would be very unhappy, so I make sure that they get as much as they want. Why if you take some of my medicine every day, you’ll never have to hear a beautiful sound again.”

“I don’t want to be cured of beautiful sounds,” insisted Milo.

“Besides,” growled Tock … “there is no such illness as lack of noise.”

“Of course not,” replied the doctor, … “that’s what makes it so difficult to cure. I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done.”

The absurdity and just-so-clever dialog invites a lot of comparison to “Alice in Wonderland,” another classic that, let’s be honest, is also kind of tedious. (Have you ever read it? Sure, it’s loaded with great imagery and memorable moments, but if you plow through the whole thing, you’ll wander through so much aimlessness you’ll need a Boy Scout and a compass to come out the other side.)

So either this proves I’m a craven half-wit, or that I just have a low tolerance for enigmatic characters and absurdist plot. But at least I know what everyone is talking about!

While I invite you to call me on my poor taste, I’m quite curious to hear your answer to a more pressing question:

What book have you never read that is making you feel guilty and less cultured as we speak? Come clean. It will be good for the soul.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Media Confession: What classic book have you *never* read?

  1. Kat

    Oh, there are so many. And I spent every spare moment of my childhood glued to a book, so how did I miss Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or The Count of Monte Cristo? And I definitely missed The Phantom Tollbooth. The list goes on and on. And it makes me panicky just to think of it. Thanks a lot!

    • jdrewscott

      Hey, you’re not as bad off as you thought. Monte Cristo? That’s ancient and long; no one expects you to have read that. Anne Frank’s Diary? As long as you know the history behind it, you’re covered. Cuckoo’s Nest? Just more counter-culture caterwauling; you can get that anywhere. Phantom Tollbooth? Well, OK, you kinda screwed the pooch on that one.

  2. Anneke

    Not exactly children’s books (at all) but I could not make any headway through the Iliad or any of that other classic Greek nonsense. Blech!

    Tollbooth was one of my favorites as a kid. A kind of training manual for later sci-fi reading. Maybe the difference is reading the book as an adult vs. reading it as a child.

    Did you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? Its more of a girl’s story, but another favorite of my childhood. It made me cry when I reread it as an adult.

    My grandmother as a Ph.D. in children’s literature, so there is not much that I missed. I think…..

    • jdrewscott

      “A training manual for later sci-fi reading.” Well, that certainly puts things in a different light! I will turn over the memory of “Tollbooth” with that comment in mind — it may change many of my judgments. (Though my first entree to sci-fi was “Dune,” and I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for *that.*)

      “Blue Dolphin,” though, had a cover that just screamed “girl” — and not in a tantalizing, revealing, Judy Blume kind of way. Totally different.

      (Hmm, a quick Amazon check reveals “Blue Dolphin” to be a wilderness survival story. What the hey? If I’d known it was Jack-London-meets-the-double-X-chromosomes, I might have been more forgiving.)

  3. jennibelle

    How about Treasure Island, or For Whom the Bell Tolls – and what about that Huck Finn? I can’t get past the dialect!

    Mark Twain defined “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read”. (with the exception of Huckleberry Finn.)

    Brother, I AM, however, totally enjoying Kaimira!

    • jdrewscott

      How ABOUT that Kaimira book (written by my friend Monk Ashland)! Sci-fi, fantasy, and just-plain-good storytelling … featuring a flying Balloon Village. Yeah. That’s just cool.

      My sister’s copy was a gift from me, but alas, the rest of you will have to buy your own:

      http://tinyurl.com/kaimira

      Buy one! Buy one!

  4. Carroll tedious? Maybe a younger reader trying to tackle Wonderland in few sittings as possible would feel the plot and language is not engaging enough – but I would never couple Carroll and tedious in my personal ravishing of his stories. Then again, this could be my personal bias as a self-proclaimed Carrollinian.

    I am in the camp of voracious readers who, for whatever reason, have not read much by Mark Twain (my only encounter with his prose was a short political satire, the title of which I cannot remember, and the first half of his short story “The Mysterious Stranger” – which I absolutely need to finish.) It’s a shame because I adore Twain – at least, from my miniscule exposure to his writing, and the quotations of his I have crossed in my meandering. He’s witty and biting, which I adore in a humourist, but I just never got around to reading much by him.

    (The Phantom Tollbooth is *amazing*, by the way.)

    • jdrewscott

      Twain is an excellent call here — I’ve tried to start “Connecticut Yankee” to no avail, and even though I understand and applaud the subtext from “Huck Finn,” that’s another book that gets bogged down by, yes, tedium after a while. Too many one-off adventures and an implausible, belabored finish. (I’m aware of HF’s historical significance, and can appreciate it on that level; like a Jackson Pollack painting, I can learn from the work without enjoying the work.)

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